Sunday, April 15, 2012

Peanuts, Popcorn & Anti-Capitalism

This post is actually a reprint, as it were, of an article I wrote for Z magazine ten years ago. I was noodling around on the web and came across it and thought it was worth adding to my blog. Z magazine features a lot of solid reporting on left-wing issues and interviews with people like Noam Chomsky. Some of the references in my article are a tad old, but the points the article makes still hold up (I hope) fairly well. Enjoy.

When President George W. Bush (among many politicians) advised Americans that an effective way to respond to September 11 was to “go to the mall,” it was made clear that the business of America, as Calvin Coolidge once put it, is business. That being said, is there any anti-capitalist rhetoric or discussion out there in the mainstream media? There is, but it's not to be found in the op-ed pages of the New York Times or on any of CNN's innumerable panel discussions featuring middle-aged suits vigorously agreeing that America is infallible. 

Have you seen the sports pages lately? Heard any sports talk radio? Watched an ESPN commentary show? That's where you'll find some of the most vituperative anti-capitalist rhetoric since Pravda folded.
Columnists, reporters, and fans use these media outlets to relentlessly vilify the major sports leagues. League officials, team owners, player agents, and the athletes are all exposed to ridicule, scorn, and contempt. Greedy, arrogant, selfish, oafish, cruel, racist, criminal, parasitic, and insane, these are just a sample of the terms fans throw at those who play and control pro sports. The basis for all this anger is almost invariably the big money in sports. 

Listen to sports radio for a few days and one quickly gets the clear impression that what helps fuel this anger is the sense of betrayal fans feel toward their favorite team or sport. Fans are, first of all, lovers of a sport. The emotional and intellectual investment a fan makes in a team represents an exploitable resource for the owners of pro sports teams. Admission prices have skyrocketed to the point where the best seats to a sports event can cost as much as a night's stay in a five-star hotel. The remaining seats are largely priced for upper middle class incomes and the cheaper seats are often monopolized by those who can afford season tickets or, if the team is popular, those who can afford scalper's prices. Television, once the great popularizer of pro sports, has progressively become more exclusive, with sports programming moving to specialty cable channels such as ESPN or pay-per-view. 

Is the anger of sports fans meaningful? Does it represent anything other than irritation with the vagaries of a favored leisure activity? For several reasons I think it does, the first being that pro sports exposes people to a portrait of capitalism without the usual scrim of corporate/governmental PR and propaganda. When NFL owners like Art Modell, Al Davis, Georgia Frontiere, and others move their teams from one city to another in return for tax breaks, subsidized or free playing facilities, and a whole package of other inducements, they aren't acting any differently than American corporations that move factories to states or other countries that offer low wages, low taxes, or other economic come-ons. The only difference is that football owners don't bother with spin control. A factory that closes in Michigan to be replaced by one in Mexico is described as “rationalization,” “strategic re-allocation of assets” or “a necessary step to stay globally competitive.” When Robert Irsay moved his tradition-rich Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis he didn't even bother with an explanation; he packed up the team's equipment and ran out of town. 

Similarly, the New York Yankees don't apologize when they snatch up the top talent from small market teams. The contracts these individual players receive can sometimes equal the entire payroll of the team the player came from. This is similar, say, to an agribusiness going into the Third World and buying up or contracting all the best land to produce “cash crops” for export while the indigenous peasantry starves for lack of arable land. The deleterious effect of these exports is papered over with talk of “aiding the balance of payments” or “bringing agricultural expertise to the underdeveloped nations of the world.” 

It seems clear that when sports fans react with rage at the actions of the Yankees and Irsays of the world, they're not just bemoaning the state of the game. Part of this fury stems from the realization that money, capital, is being used as a weapon, and a blunt one, at that. It's capitalism unmasked and a significant number of people, most of whom wouldn't describe themselves as socialists if their lives depended on it, are appalled by what they see.

Another interesting aspect of fan anger is that the public forums it finds voice in—the sports pages, phone-in shows, sports commentary TV programs—are probably the only major media-sanctioned outlets for anti-capitalist sentiment in the U.S. These outlets probably don't realize that what's being discussed would be branded as “dangerously socialist” if it appeared in a different context or forum. 

Although much of the public criticism directed at pro sports doesn't rise much above the level of name-calling, it's significant that it exists at all. It's hard to imagine a newspaper or cable channel regularly devoting a section or program to the sins of capitalism, but certainly on many days the sports media seems wholly concerned with trashing the finances and corporate structure of pro sports. 

The breadth and depth of critical comment in the sports world stands in stark relief to “regular” news. The mainstream press, for instance, has handled the Enron debacle as though it was a kind of corporate train wreck, the blame for which can be safely pinned on some rogue accountants and executives. There has been little serious discussion about Enron being the end result of willful government deregulation and a corporate culture that rewards and encourages fiscal avarice. Mainstream media chooses to portray the Enron meltdown as an aberration, albeit a spectacular one. For comparison look to the way the sports media has been handling major league baseball's plan to “contract” teams. Commentators (and fans) have been virtually unanimous in deriding baseball commissioner Bud Selig's explanation that the health of the sport depends on shedding teams, pointing out that this move is more about dividing up the TV-rights revenue pie amongst fewer teams, while at the same time dropping two teams, Montreal and Minnesota, that add virtually nothing to national TV ratings. Further, this attempted move has exposed baseball to a blizzard of critical comment on all its activities, from exorbitant free agent signings to the fan-unfriendly actions of stars. 

Capitalist indiscretions in the sports world are thoroughly and critically examined. This critical analysis pro sport receives on a near daily basis has helped create fan disenchantment and, in some cases, fan rebellion. Baseball, the major league sport most egregiously dominated by big money, has been the most seriously damaged by fan anger. In the years since the labor lockout in 1994, fan support at the turnstile and in front of the TV has declined severely, a spectacular example being the Montreal Expos, a team that now struggles to draw AAA-sized crowds 

One sure sign of growing fan disenchantment with the capitalist knife fight that pro sports has become is the number of franchises that jump from city to city looking for greenbacker pastures. Unlike the expansionist 1970s and 1980s, when new franchises and pro leagues popped up everywhere, the last ten years have seen pro sport franchises move around like a traveling carnival. Now, a handful of super-rich teams in each pro league dominate the elite player talent pool. This results in a long list of have-not teams that struggle futilely to achieve a winning record. Fans are painfully and angrily aware of this inequity 
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the anti-capitalist bent of so many fans and sports journalists is that it creates a fertile environment in which to educate people about the larger problems created by a capitalist economy. Thanks to the mendacious and piratical behavior of pro sports, millions of fans are savvy to the ways and means a huge bankroll can stack the deck against their rooting interests and the interests of their sport. It's not a huge jump from there to show people how the capitalism that ruins their favorite team or sport can, and is, ruining lives within and without the U.S. 

Any fan who has wept over his or her team skipping town to set up in a more financially accommodating city should be able to see and understand one of the main problems of globalization; that is, the damaging effect of capital chasing cheap labor and low taxes around the world. Similarly, fans of small market teams who gnash their teeth when their team's best talent is siphoned off to major market teams would undoubtedly have a keen appreciation for the destructive power of capital in the Third World, where the most lucrative natural resources (land, minerals, oil) are largely controlled by foreign multinationals, who leave behind poverty and pollution after they've exported products and profits to the Western World. 

In these red, white and blue post-September 11 days, with media-encouraged jingoism at an all-time high, and a president and Congress that can be charitably described as corporate America's courtesans, it's somewhat comforting to realize that a rich vein of anti-capitalist emotion and thought still exists in America, even if one has to go to a sports bar to hear it. Chicken wings, anyone?       

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