Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By Dave Zirin
I once had a coach who could spit tobacco hard enough to break a window. He smelled like an old hamper, and only wore pants that came with an elastic waist. Still, every last one of us loved the guy. He always said, “Sports is like a hammer, gents. And you can use a hammer for all kinds of things. You can use it to build a house, or you can use it to bash somebody’s head. Choose wisely.”
In the twenty-first century, the heads of far too many sports fans have been bashed by far too many hammers. Our collective migraine comes from the idea that we are loving something that just doesn’t love us back. If sports was once like a playful puppy you would wrestle on the floor, it’s now like a housecat demanding to be stroked and giving nothing in return.
Sports fans are fed up.
It’s the extra commercials tacked onto a broadcast, as companies attempt to use the games to brand our subconscious. It’s when you decide to finally take the trip to the park, look up the ticket prices, and decide immediately to do something—anything—else with your time.
And so you go a year without making it to the ballpark and fail to even notice. Or you don’t feel the same urgency to watch every minute of every game for fear you might miss something magical.
If a car’s brakes failed, you wouldn’t blame the driver. You’d blame the manufacturer. And when we feel bludgeoned by the state of professional sports, it’s the owners who need to answer for this sorry state of affairs.
Owners are uniquely charged with being the stewards of the game. It’s a task that they have failed to perform in spectacular fashion.
In fact, with barely a sliver of scrutiny, they are wrecking the world of sports. The old model of the paternalistic owner caring for a community has become as outdated as the typewriter. Because of publicly funded stadium construction, luxury box licenses, sweetheart cable deals, globalized merchandising plans, and other “revenue streams,” the need for owners to cater to a local working and middle class fan base has shrunk dramatically.
Fans have become scenery for television broadcasts.
Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News once wrote, “You are owed nothing in sports, no matter how much you care. You are owed nothing, no matter how long you’ve rooted or how much you’ve paid to do it.”
I couldn’t disagree more. We are owed plenty by the world of sports.
We are owed loyalty.
We are owed accessibility.
We are owed a return on our massive civic investment.
And more than anything, we are owed respect.
We aren’t owed this respect because it’s the kind or human thing to do.
We aren’t owed any love because we cheered ourselves hoarse and passed the precious rooting tradition down to our children.
We are owed it because the teams are ours as much as they are theirs. Literally.
By calling for and receiv ing public funds, owners have sacrificed their moral, if not financial, claim of ownership. Cities and city councils that allow their funds to be used by private franchises should, in turn, have some say in the relationship between team and fan.
That means lower ticket prices.
That means an end to the $8 beer.
As sports fans, we have to accept that we do in fact deserve better, but as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
If we aren’t making demands, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Dave Zirin, a monthly columnist for The Progressive, is the author of several books on sports, including "A People's History of Sports" and most recently, "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love." To read his column every month in The Progressive, subscribe here for only $14.97. That's 68% off the newsstand price.