Since President Obama took office 21 months ago, the country’s political class has debated the appropriate role of government in American society. As has been seen in recent political squabbles over the stimulus package, health care reform and other contentious legislation, Democrats and Republicans offer competing visions for how much of American life should be in the hands of the government.
When this debate is vibrant and honest, America is a better place, as both sides work together to find the right balance between the roles of the government and the individual. But one sector of society that is always conspicuously absent from this type of debate about socialism – and one that often finds liberals and conservatives abandoning their normal predilections – is sports.
No, this is not a debate about whether the National Football League’s robust system of sharing and distributing revenue among its teams is better or worse than Major League Baseball’s free-market model of competition among clubs for profits and players. It’s about the government’s place in the sports landscape.
Whether or not we realize it, government at all different levels plays a prominent role in shaping the ways in which we play and watch sports. Municipal and county governments are usually responsible for furnishing the parks and fields most recreational, high school and travel league teams use for their games. State governing bodies are typically in charge of high school athletics, tasked with establishing rules and policies as well as hosting postseason championships.
Few would argue these arrangements are unjust or the product of an overreaching government. Even though towns and states must heavily subsidize these programs with tax revenue, their ability to foster desirable public goods – school and civic pride, greater networks of social trust and opportunities for youth and adult exercise – makes good public policy sense at those levels.
The more contentious issue, however, is whether city or state governments should support the ventures of professional sports teams. Namely, it’s a question of whether stadiums and arenas should be subsidized.
Proponents of the public financing of professional sports facilities argue that they can be of great value to their cities and states. Not only does funding guarantee that the local team will not pack its bags and head to a city that will pay for a new stadium, but it also provides other social and economic benefits.
Camden Yards, the beautiful home of the Baltimore Orioles, is the best example of the value of a new stadium for a city. Besides bringing in large numbers of fans and their money to the Inner Harbor neighborhood and engendering city pride in the club – at least when the Orioles were competitive in the 1990s – it can be argued that the park was instrumental in revitalizing an otherwise depressed, blighted area of Baltimore. The money spent to build the park was well spent.
Other examples, however, make you wonder whether the money can ever be justified. Critics of public funding argue that professional teams don’t need help because they and their owners are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Though teams are in the public eye, they are private companies that should fend for themselves. In addition, they maintain that the increased tax revenues generated by the new stadium and other new businesses surrounding the facility do not even come close to the expenditures required to fund the stadium. Besides, with so many other, more worthy government programs failing America’s cities, how can money for a stadium be considered appropriate?
This is exactly the dilemma that faced the District’s city government when it approved $611 million for the construction of Nationals Park in Southeast. When MLB threatened to move the Nationals out of Washington if the city did not completely fund the park, the government felt it had no choice but to fork over the money. While the park is nice and will serve the city well for years, the question must be asked: In a city in which many schools are failing and many citizens live in poverty, how can officials maintain that the money they won’t recoup for years – if ever – was spent wisely?
Interestingly, liberals and conservatives do not always uphold their governing ideologies when it comes to these issues. One Republican candidate for president in 2008, who campaigned on his free-market, conservative economic principles, among other issues, authorized $800 million to be spent on baseball stadium construction despite his city facing a $3 billion budget shortfall. His name is Rudy Giuliani.
Conversely, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is one of the most liberal members of the House who generally supports a greater role of government in society. Yet, in 2008 he held hearings on Capitol Hill to investigate potential improprieties surrounding public subsidies for the new Yankee Stadium (not the same one Giuliani proposed), arguing public financing and tax breaks were improperly used on the stadium’s construction.
Like most political dilemmas facing America, these issues of sports boil down to what we perceive to be fair and just, asking us to decide how much value we place on athletics. Sports economists tell us that public financing for stadiums is bad economic policy, but we must remember that the social goods that come from sports cannot be shortchanged.
Government clearly has a role in sports. As with every other issue in our country, though, we are still striving to determine what it should be.