Nearly two millennia ago, satirical poet Juvenal decried the civic disengagement of his fellow Romans, to wit:
“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the people have abdicated our duties; for the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything – now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
The 21st century version of Roman circuses is the public’s fascination, even obsession, with sports, particularly the professional variety.
There’s nothing wrong per se with enjoying sports, as long as we maintain a proper perspective. They’re merely entertaining diversions from real life, like movies, concerts, theater and television.
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It’s not unusual, however, for politicians and media cheerleaders to portray their teams – this is happening now in Sacramento with the Kings basketball team – as definitive civic institutions.
They imply that having a major-league franchise equates with productive, job-creating industries, strong educational systems, medical care facilities, good roads, parks, libraries or other truly vital amenities of a healthy community.
They grovel and go into debt to placate billionaire team owners, who often threaten to go elsewhere if they don’t get new playgrounds for their millionaire gladiators.
California is seeing a feeding frenzy of such maneuvers.
As Sacramento builds a new downtown arena for the Kings, with roughly half the money coming from the city, the 49ers football team has already decamped from San Francisco to a lavish new facility in Santa Clara, Oakland’s Athletics baseball team and its Raiders football team are demanding new venues, the Warriors basketball team is abandoning Oakland for a new arena in San Francisco, the Chargers football team is on the verge of moving to Los Angeles as San Diego politicians frantically try to mollify its owners with promises of a new stadium – and so forth.
Meanwhile, legislators from the affected communities have enlisted by promising relief from the state’s notoriously burdensome environmental regulations for sports palaces.
Sacramento and the Kings received special treatment, as did two competing football stadium projects in Los Angeles. One of this year’s budget “trailer bills” gives a second dose of red-tape relief for the new Warriors arena in San Francisco, even though it obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with the budget.
And now San Diegan Toni Atkins, speaker of the state Assembly, is promising similar treatment for a new Chargers stadium, if it helps city officials persuade the team to stay put.
Politicians are eager to foster athletic circuses, which contribute little or nothing to the economy. But they pay scant attention to attracting capital investment that would create jobs – bread, if you will – for California’s million-plus unemployed workers.
Why are they so willing to slash red tape for teams, but not for everyone else? It just does not make any sense.