There are some purple dots that need to be connected as the Kevin Williams and Pat Williams diuretic drama flows on.
These are the dots of public funding for stadiums and the behavior of subsidized athletes and teams.
While the local sports pages seem to bemoan the suspensions because the NFL is harming the Vikings’ playoff chances, the issue is far more serious than wins or losses. It goes to one of the reasons — just one — why some taxpayers become outraged at the prospect of state or local tax dollars helping to fund a new Vikings stadium.
Why should we help pay for a facility that increases the value of a team to its owners and the salaries of its players … including players who can’t seem to follow the rules of the league, let alone the rules of society?
Of course, the jury seems to be out on the Williamses’ case. Lawsuits are on the horizon, and there is a claim of some sort of innocence.
(As someone who has covered Olympic sports for 20 years, I experience a strong feeling of schadenfreude as I watch football fans lash out at the unfair treatment of athletes who were “just trying to lose weight.” In 2006, a U.S. Winter Olympic athlete was banned from competing for a year because he tested positive for a drug to stop baldness. That same substance can mask steroid use. The World Anti-Doping Agency had zero tolerance, even for bald guys. I support that … but, then, I have hair.)
Players’ off-field scandals a blot on community
These off-field escapades — from the sordid “Love Boat” scandal to athletes in other cities carrying guns into nightclubs and shooting themselves — throw a pall over the value of pro sports to a community.
At its core, the argument for a new Vikings stadium — for any publicly financed facility — is that pro sports increase the civic imagery and national profile of a community. Pro sports provide a certain amount of community building in an era of urban sprawl and diffused demographics.
The best argument for pro sports subsidies can only be the intangibles because the economic arguments simply aren’t borne out.
But athletes — who drive and support the brand of a team — repeatedly beat down that brand. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants are now in the midst of an ugly controversy in which star wide receiver Plaxico Burress carried an unregistered gun into a nightclub and shot himself. In New York City, carrying an unregistered firearm is a crime punishable by a mandatory jail sentence of three-and-a-half years.
Teammates, fans and some sports journalists are calling the Burress case “a distraction” for the champs. A distraction?
The Williamses get busted by the league for using a banned substance, and the main question from fans and local scribes and talking heads is: “How will this affect the Vikings playoff chances?”
Wait, it should affect their chances!
Teams regularly reach out to the community for good-vibe creation. Players serve turkey on Thanksgiving at homeless shelters. Players visit children’s hospitals. It’s part spin, part genuine, part ticket-selling, part brand-maintenance, part politics, part mythology.
The mythology: Athletes are role models.
Yep, it’s the “role model” thing that some folks haven’t gotten over yet.
Pat Williams, Kevin Williams — no matter what the outcome of this case — just lost their role-model points. They are known now — from Wikipedia to the New York Times — as being suspended for performance-enhancing drug use. Just Google it … forever.
Owner Zygi Wilf and his stadium-building crew just suffered another political setback … putting aside, if anyone can, the state’s impending zillion-dollar deficit and the scramble for priorities during a deep recession.
For years I have argued that if the public coffers fund and/or finance the construction or purchase of sports facilities, there must be an exchange from the team. There must be a real exchange of goods, but, mostly, community values.
Sure, we get the enjoyment of, say, 10 NFL games a year and the privilege of having a team of our own. On Sundays, in the Vikings’ case, we have this special statewide campfire that brings many of us together with a common, albeit frivolous, cause.
There is some value to that. It’s a good thing. It’s fun. We cheer as a state at once.
But teams must give more than games. Teams must provide more than $100 to a charity every time there’s a sack … by a player who might be violating the league’s drug policy.
How about team financial penalties for players’ illegal behavior?
As the Vikings stadium effort resumes at the 2009 Legislature, we know certain socially responsible language will be suggested and should be included in any legislation.
A stadium must be accessible via public transportation. A stadium must be built by union workers, with attention to minority and women contractors. There should be a certain amount of tickets set aside that are “affordable.” There should be limits on blackout games on TV. The public should get a piece of the action if the team is sold by the Wilfs at a windfall soon after the stadium opens. A public body must have oversight on naming rights.
(These are included in Twins legislation or lease agreements, by the way.)
But, now, in this 21st century, as athletes’ entitlement spins out of control, we need athlete (and owner) behavior clauses in stadium legislation.
We need to punish owners and leagues when their “role model” athletes break the law or violate drug policy. If teams and leagues want our tax dollars, we must demand that teams, leagues and players be model citizens.
How about something like this: “If any owner or player of the Minnesota-based NFL franchise is arrested, tried and convicted of a felony; if any player of the local franchise tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs under his league’s drug policy, the team will immediately release that player; … or, in the alternative, pay the state or local government unit the equivalent of one year’s debt service on the new stadium.”
How’s $60 million sound as a good fine for reprehensible off-field behavior? (Burress, by the way, could lose $20 million or more for his gun-toting escapade.)
We shouldn’t knee-jerk refuse to fund or finance a Vikings stadium. There should be, at the right time, a robust statewide debate on this important asset. The team is, generally, a good corporate citizen. The players are, generally, law-abiding people.
But as athletes’ salaries rise, as tickets cost more and TV games are pushed to paid cable channels, the owners and athletes must pay a steep price for the subsidies we provide when off-the-field behavior spins out of control.
In the impending debate over Vikings’ stadium funding, the public might finally have some leverage. Some.