Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love, by Dave Zirin

Article first published as Book Review: Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love, by Dave Zirin on Blogcritics.

In Bad Sports, Dave Zirin takes the reader on a short guided tour of the many and varied sins of the millionaire owners of professional sports franchises in the United States to demonstrate how they are fleecing the public while ruining the sports the lowly fans love. There are mean spirited villains in Zirin's world, and these villains—or perhaps devils as one recent book on the millionaires who wrecked the country's financial system calls them—are the money grubbing owners and their apologists and enablers in the press and the government. The guys who actually play the games may not be perfect, but, at least as far as Zirin is concerned, they are more sinned against than sinning. They are the workers, labor. And like all labor, from Zirin's point of view, the players are taken advantage of by capital. Zirin comes at the problem from the left, the far left, just about as far left as you can get. Conservatives will clearly have a problem with his analysis.

On the other hand, if like me you lived in Brooklyn back in 1958 when Walter O'Malley took our beloved "Bums" out of Ebbets Field and moved them to Los Angeles, you may be more inclined to agree with Zirin. If you lived in Baltimore, when Robert Irsay packed up your, strike that, his colts and sneaked off to the greener fields of Indianapolis, you may not find him so radical. If you live in Seattle, you may have a lot more sympathy for his ideas. And it is not simply teams absconding and leaving their fans in the lurch, there are other sins. There are the power mad tyrants who think their money makes them experts in football or basketball or whatever. There are the cheapskates who refuse to spend the money necessary to field a respectable team, a team that has a chance of winning. There are the blackmailers who hold cities up for the ransom of tax payer supported gleaming new arenas. And this says nothing about the way some of these owners, who Zirin considers nothing short of megalomaniacs treat their employees, use their teams to promote their political and religious ideas at the public expense, and overcharge patrons for an inferior product. His book is nothing short of a radical indictment of modern sports ownership.

It is filled with examples. Zirin names names, but there is little that is new. This is less an investigative piece than it is a collection of reports culled from the news and the blogosphere. He talks about James Dolan's problems with the Knicks and his sexual harassment suit. He talks about the Tom Hicks' problems with the fans in Liverpool after his purchase of their football team. Then there's Dan Snyder in the nation's capital and Peter Angelos in Baltimore, Donald Sterling and David Glass, and on and on. The stories of mismanagement and the complaints about gauging have been around a long time. What Zirin does is gather them all together to make his case.

What is his case? Think Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the man from La Mancha dreaming the impossible dream. What he is advocating as the best model of sports ownership in this best of all possible worlds is that of the Green Bay Packers. A team should be owned by its fans. No doubt he is aware that this kind of thing happened once, and it isn't likely that it is ever going to happen again. Still the comparison between greedy ownership charging eight bucks for a beer and refusing to allow fans to bring food into the stadium, and Green Bay where concessions are run by volunteers and sixty percent of the income goes to charity is worth noting. The comparison between small market teams which can't seem to dig their way out of the mire, and a small market team that just managed to win itself a Super Bowl, albeit too late to make Zirin's book, has got to say something about the viability of this particular windmill.

Zirin writes with flair and some venom. Cutting remarks are part of his stock in trade. He has no sympathy for the millionaires, neither the self made, nor their heirs. Private peccadilloes public gaffes, all are fair game. Evict a woman from her rent controlled apartment; dump an all star player turned front office man out of his office; use your publicly funded stadia for prayer meetings: all are equally grist for Zirin's mill. The bigger the name, the greater seems his joy in pointing to the clay feet. One might argue that pointing out that millionaires and their offspring are greedy, that as often as not they're lucky rather than smart, that they think a lot of themselves is not quite a revelation, and that is probably right. On the other hand, when I think about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Baltimore Colts and the Seattle Supersonics, revelation or not, it feels good to see someone take them down a peg.

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