There are certainly worse things in the world than the hubris of professional sports figures and the men who control them, but sometimes it feels as though that arrogance is just knocking the wind right out of us. Last week was one of those times.
There were a few sweet days right around the Super Bowl where there seemed to exist an almost Norman Rockwell-esque bond between pro football and the fans that make pro football possible. The Green Bay Packers, the only publicly owned major sports franchise in the country, had not only provided a thrilling championship game but conducted themselves well in the course of winning it. Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, was a likeable underdog who came out on top. The Super Bowl TV ratings were fantastic. The Packers victory felt unusually warm and fuzzy.
Then we were all immediately reminded that greed drives enterprise and that the NFL and its players union are currently at odds over money. The NFL wants to add games to the season, so they can make more money – more than the $9 billion already generated every year. Players are talking about holding up the next season if a new agreement isn’t worked out, with negotiation issues that include how to divide that jackpot, a rookie wage scale, and benefits to retired players. The NFL estimates there would be a cut in gross revenues of $120 million without a new agreement by early March and $1 billion if no new contract is in place until September. And if regular-season games are lost, the NFL figures the revenue losses would amount to about $400 million per week.
If these figures applied to some imaginary conflict in which Hollywood actors were refusing to make movies and TV shows, we’d all join in a collective yawn (Charlie Sheen would likely already be passed out.) But denying sports seasons to fans while money issues are worked out has a certain ugly quality. Especially if one looks at the lengths fans go to in supporting their teams, such as citizens collectively providing an estimated $61 billion dollars for new arenas.
Which brings us to our own Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have announced a new deal for TV coverage of their games which will reduce the number of games shown free on TV by moving more games to pay cable. Well, fine, you can just take your kids to see the Lakers play live. Estimated cost for a family of four tickets is $500. You know, at the Staples Center which supposedly in some way belongs to all of us. All of us who have that kind of disposable income and want to eat some of the fresh sushi available while we’re at Staples.
Despite these harsh realities, the Laker players see themselves as heroes. Actual movie-type heroes. Starting last Saturday, a six-minute infomercial for Nike directed by Robert Rodriquez played before PG-13 and R-rated movies at Mann Theaters in L.A. and a dozen other theaters in Southern California. Never mind the preposterous story line of the “film” – it’s all about selling shoes. Although the L.A. Times said that the effort is about trying to “tap into Laker fandom.” Yes, please… delay the movie I have just paid to see so that I can watch egomaniacs act out their fantasies and push a shoe in my face.
Or maybe it’s not a shoe; maybe it’s more like a boot. Why is there never any conversation about fans striking or boycotting the teams? Imagine those crowds that let off steam after each Laker NBA championship win gathered by the thousands downtown. Only this time, they’re in a Cairo-state of mind. Having had enough of being treated like dirt for years by the entire Laker organization, they’re now going to do the real rioting we always fear every time the Lakers shove their championship ring fingers in our faces.
Taken one way, the avarice and attitude of the Lakers is to be expected because we submit. We build them a new venue that they then turn around and price us out of. We pay for the yellow plastic flags and fly them on our cars because it provides us with an identity and a feeling of oneness that can be rare in modern life. We admire the player salaries, even as we fail to find a way to explain to our kids why basketball players get that money and public education struggles. We’re amused and even a little supportive when we learn that Kobe uses a helicopter to avoid traffic to get to practice. We don’t question the need for a parade where the Lakers are carried down the street like gods. We say nothing when true Laker fans are told they’ll have to pay more often to watch them on television. That’s all on us.
Where we are really screwing up is in letting all this continue to flourish as though it has clearly been proven to be a good thing for society. LeBron James aimed the cannon of fan blowback on himself when he turned his decision to dump on the city of Cleveland into a TV special all about him. That stung for a little while, and then it was back to business as usual. Still, it somewhat sadly gives me something to cheer for this basketball season in hoping that LeBron and Miami are trounced in the playoffs. One shouldn’t feel that same kind of animosity for their hometown team. It shouldn’t be that way, Lakers. I shouldn’t be cheering when you get crushed by lesser teams. I don’t have to love you, but… could I like you a little bit more?