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January 19, 2013

We always find enough funds for bread, circuses

The Daily Star

---- — With the holidays behind us and football season winding down, I was pleased to hear that the National Hockey League and its players union agreed Jan. 12 to end their labor impasse and salvage a truncated 48-game season.

For me, this means I won’t have to sit through a wasted season for my young, hungry Edmonton Oilers, who are teeming with talent after winning three consecutive draft lotteries. For those whose livelihood depends on the game, such as my old journalism school pal-turned Los Angeles Kings beat writer Andrew Knoll, the deal is much more important.

But forgive me if I greet the NHL’s return with more relief than joy. As nice as it is to see such a great sport return, I can’t help but feel a bit miffed that regional economies and loyal fan bases can be taken hostage in feuds between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners, two groups demanding extra money that they want but don’t really need.

It’s similar to the senseless, pigheaded standoff between the NFL owners and referees this fall, which ruined nearly half a football season.

It’s especially frustrating when this ravenous sports-entertainment complex earns the bulk of its revenue in taxpayer-financed stadiums and benefits from myriad tax incentives — often hatched from a city’s desire to kick backs and slush funds, not because some well-heeled team owner actually needs the money.

As an NFL fan and a New Yorker, I guess I’m supposed to be happy to learn that the Buffalo Bills reached an agreement Dec. 21 to remain here for another decade. I’m sure Bills management found the deal much sweeter than taxpayers did. Of the $130 million allotted for improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills will cover $35.5 million, with Erie County and the state picking up the rest of the tab. Taxpayers will cover roughly $226 million of the entire $271 million deal.

For small-market teams like the Bills, this sort of bilking is possible because a ruthless potential owner could buy the team and threaten to relocate it to mooch off the taxpayer teat in some other city. But more-stable franchises are no less willing to play hardball; new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets cost the public $2 billion. According to Bloomberg News, taxpayers are on the hook for $4 billion in bonds used to finance stadiums across the U.S. since 1986.

As a former sports editor who crossed over to what journalists call “the news side” a few years ago, I see incongruity in one page of my newspaper telling about public schools and nursing homes closing for lack of funds while another page tells of huge subsidies for millionaire athletes to play children’s games – for which their billionaire handlers charge us $60 admission to the nosebleed seats.

A strict constructionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution would find financing of sports – from grade school on up – outside the government’s authority. The same would be said for public programs to subsidize artists, such as the National Endowment for the Arts.

But on the other hand, sports and art have a value that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Why, after all, do parents encourage their kids to play sports and join the band or choir, even though such activities do little to increase a young person’s earnings potential?

Whenever schools tighten their budgets, art and music classes end up on the chopping block first, with sports not far behind. Unfortunately, these are among the best activities for young people to learn about themselves and build character. The diligence and patience required, for example, to hone an accurate jump shot or master a difficult instrument can be helpful later in life. There’s also something healthy and natural about competition, as President Barack Obama said in March.

“Most folks understand sports. Probably because it’s one of the few places where it’s a true meritocracy,” Obama said. “Ultimately, who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s performing, who’s not — it’s all laid out there.”

For centuries, the arts were funded by the nobility, who used money extorted from their subjects to act as patrons to history’s greatest artists, for better or for worse. In lieu of having such an aristocracy, we have tax money going toward such things as the NEA and Austin City Limits. The fact of the matter is if we want a culture worth being proud of, somebody’s got to pay for it.

I suppose the same goes for public stadiums, which are useful for a variety of purposes unrelated to the sports franchises that use them. But just because the people are willing to cough up some dough for their bread and circuses doesn’t mean penny-pinching owners and players union bosses should abuse the privilege.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at