Why the Sonics matter

Public funding of stadiums is a hot subject again with the Sonics recent request for the extension of an existing tax to fund a new basketball (well, yeah, multi-purpose) arena in Renton. While I understand the concerns for public financing for millionaire owners, I also understand the social benefit sports have. Part 1 is me putting on the table my idea of that social benefit, and Part 2 will be about  why I think this argument about public funding for millionaire owners is a false dilemma.

Part 1. Where I'm coming from

My parents used to tell me a story about when they lived in Seattle in the early 70s. They had my big brother (before I was born) in a baby backpack, they were walking back to their house on Queen Ann Hill. Still a time when young families lived in Seattle, they were passing by the arena, and decided to walk up to the doors and were surprised to be able to find their way into a game, late in the fourth argument.

My dad tells me about seeing Downtown Freddie Brown hoist what would have been a three pointer, had the NBA had a three point line back then. I didn't notice until tonight that Brown also played at my dad's graduate school alma mater, University of Iowa. Might have mattered why my dad was so attached to him.

More than twenty years later, I'm walking up and down the sidelines at Elma High School, covering an early season football game. Early in the third quarter, visiting Rochester Warriors are pinned deep in their own territory and the Elma stands are starting chanting "We Are ... Elma."

One of the Elma assistant coaches walks up to me and says, joking, "I taught them that."

I reply, knowing by now how to play along with coaches, "Before, they'd just sit there wondering who they were."

Elma's defense holds, one of their linebackers catching the Rochester runningback behind the line. That linebacker, an all-conference defensive player of the year, ends up going to St. Martins University for an engineering degree. That probably doesn't matter to my overall argument, I just like mentioning it, he's a great kid.

The point is the attachments to things larger than ourselves come so easily in sport. Those attachments are so much better when they're attached to a club that is local to us.

The Elma Eagles represent more than Elma High School, but the community of Elma, the country around it and its history. Elma is the small winner of Grays Harbor County. Not the lawyer's town of Montesano (the county seat) or the larger communities of Aberdeen and Hoquim that in some way are expected to win, but don't. Elma sits out there in East County, finds success and wins football games.

The Sonics of the 70s mean more than the championship and 12 guys in the old Coliseum, but attach me to my parents as a young couple and Seattle at that time, when people like my parents could afford to live there, the way it never will be again.

The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic points to the particular, and in this case bloody, attachments between the civic connection made in sport and how they parallel politics. Fans of Belgrade Red Star had supported (and in one case led) the war against the Bosians and Croats in the early 1990s. By the late 90s, the clubs of hooligans surrounding Red Star became the center of anti Milosevic anger.

Anti-Milosevic slogans were first heard by many Serbians during Red Star telecasts:

Traditional terrace chants at Belgrade's premier football club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) have given way to blatantly anti-government songs.

The chants, including a smash hit dedicated to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - "Slobodan, Save Serbia! Kill Yourself" - have proved too much for the government to bear, prompting heavy-handed police intervention.

"We will not allow anybody to 'hang' Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslav stadiums," said the Yugoslav Football Association, FSJ, Safety Commissioner, Kosta Vukovic. Any repetition of these chants, he warned, and police have orders to clear the stadiums - the football clubs as well as the fans will suffer.

Red Star fans are known for their anti-establishment views. When the independent TV station Studio B was closed in a media crackdown in May, they joined in the protests and many were involved in violent clashes with police. Banners of the student movement Otpor (Resistance) mingle with the sea of Red Star flags on the terraces.

"We show publicly we are against the tyrant all the way," said Nane, a Red Star fan. "So the police beat us up. But we're not afraid and we won't back down."

During a recent match between Red Star and Georgia's Torpedo Kutisi the police demonstrated they too would not back down. When fans launched into their first anti-Milosevic song, the police brutally intervened. Around 20 police officers and fans were injured, and 151 supporters were arrested.

To tell you the truth, Red Star may not be the best example of good politics and social impact coming from support for a sports team. Many supporters of Red Star continued to be hateful bigots following Milosevic's fall. His sin was not killing Bosians, it was killing them and getting bad attention for it. But, other clubs, like Barca in Spain, provide a much better example of the intermingling of sport and social impact.

Sport is a common language that brings us beyond everyday differences. It can, in the case of Serbian politics, serve as a medium that unites a nation against a tyrant. Sure, people were dissatisfied with Milosevic, which would have likely resulted in a rebellion. But, the organized groups that surrounded Red Star made the overthrow easier. That Serbians lived for one thing in particular, their club, meant they could unite around another thing easier.  Sport is a living metaphor for how we should live the rest of our public lives, it is a metaphor for the public, civic trust that many of us have for a particular club and that we should have for each other.

All that said, I'm not totally sure giving public subsidy to millionaire owners is a good idea. I am sure that public funds can and should be used for sports stadiums, but I understand people who use the economics of sports as a reason to object to the use of public funds. I see reform of our sports as a better way than to force the Sonics to leave town. I'll tackle that one next time.

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Sports are not a public cause, unless you're using the money to build neighborhood courts or community centers, for the public to play in for free or very minimal cost. This is a far cry from footing more than half the bill for a single stadium meant only for a professional elite to use.

The real crime of organized sports is that, after milking the public government for $300 mil to build a stadium, they then turn around and charge $30-$60 per seat, $10-$20 for parking, plus concession food and souvenirs priced at three or four times their real value.

I fail to see how this helps the community. You could take that $300 mil and put it towards schools, or parks, or transit, or homeless shelters, and it would do a far lot more good to the community than a single monolithic sports cathedral ever will.

by romulusnr on Tue Mar 13, 2007 at 10:05:24 PM PST

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I can't support spending hundreds of millions on sports stadiums when we can't afford to properly fund education or house the homeless.

Just. Can't. Do. It.

And if that isn't reason enough to Just Say No, then I always remember this post by a diarist at Conceptual Guerilla's:

We've all been there. You go to the stadium, you wear the team colors, the hat and the sweater. You wave the flag. You root for the team. You're a supporter. It's you and your kind against the other. We're the Warthogs, they're the Prairie Dogs. "Mash their viscera, gouge their eyes. C'mon, 'Hogs, skin 'em alive."

So, we're a great nation of sports-lovers and other-haters. We support our team, no matter what. Why? Because it's our team. We don't need a better reason than that. Our gut tells us it's right to support the team. We have school spirit. We support the team.

Well, guess what. That's just what the military drills into inductees. We're us; they're the other. They are sub-human. "Mash their viscera, gouge their eyes." Support our team. Don't worry about it. Just kill. And most inductees are primed to believe it. They went to the stadium, wore the colors, waved the flag.

But there's a big problem with this picture. We allow ourselves to be duped because our ancestors feared and hated the other, and their fear and hatred is a part of, but only a part of, our human nature. Our gut tells us to support the team, because its our team. But our intellect knows better.

And I know better.  I'm not letting some innate desire to root for a bunch of millionaires who play basketball for a living override my common sense.  You see, if the Sonics win the championship, so what?  What does that REALLY have to do with our so-called "civic pride"?  When you get right down to it, like Seinfeld said, all we really do is root for laundry.  One year, the guy wearing our laundry we root for. Next year, he's with the "enemy" team and we root against him.  Let's face it, we root for the laundry.  It's basic primitive caveman behaviour.

We all do it.  I LOVE sports.

But shouldn't we take more "civic pride" in funding the nations best educational system for our kids?  Shouldn't we take more "civic pride" in getting the mentally ill off our city streets and into healthcare facilities?

If the Sonics leave for Oklahoma I really won't care.  I'll always have Dennis Johnson, Spencer Heywood, Downtown Freddie Brown to remember.  But you know what?  Even if I didn't, I'd still have Sonny Sixkiller, the '91 Huskies, Michael Jackson's (the Pasco native not the singer)end zone defense in the Rose Bowl.  The referees theft of the 79 state basketball championship.

There's always someone to root for in sports.  Nostalgia for a bunch of millionaire basketball players is no excuse for giving their owners corporate welfare when we can't even fund our own schools adequately.

by Pen on Tue Mar 13, 2007 at 11:57:50 PM PST

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