The Rich, the Poor, and the Playground

I have known for most of my life, at least in a shallow way, that extremes of wealth and poverty are toxic to world unity and peace. The Baha’i teachings have insisted on their elimination for something close to 150 years. I accepted the tenet as fact – alongside the necessities of defusing all prejudices, widening all loyalties, and rethinking all assumptions – as an idealistic young man, no more than a boy, really.

During my privileged, Canadian-born lifetime, the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and now I live in a country hell-bent on leading the world in this dubious marker of development. (My understanding is that the Excited States of America is still in front by a nose, but China and Brazil are

Sorry, this is a bit graphic. Yes, that is Chairman Mao on the 100-yuan note, China’s largest denomination (about seventeen bucks Canadian). Families live on that for a month.

closing fast. To the winner goes the spoiling, the rot, the instability, but the runners-up will know it, too.) Lately, I’ve been  brooding on the reasons for my steadily – sometimes violently – growing disillusion with sports, at least at the pro level.

Stratospheric salaries for the best horse-hide whackers and roundball  bouncers (and all their sweaty peers) are, of course, a cliché these days. Spaniard Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers will make $19 million next season, and he’s far from the highest-paid jock. I made a good and steady North American income for nearly 30 years, and my take was somewhere between a mil and $1.5 million, I figure. Such comparisons are so banal that nobody really talks about it anymore, which is why I just did.

Here’s another truism, so obvious that we often don’t see it: especially in basketball and football, North America’s most popular sports, the competitors are disproportionately black and the spectators (the ones paying hundreds for seats and ten bucks or more for beers) are overwhelmingly white. There are dozens of lessons and worries to be found in this demographic divide, but I keep dwelling on this unpleasant fact of life: the games I have loved are not just examples of economic inequality – they are based on it. They are founded upon the growing gap between the poor and the ever-more-rich. The whole professional sports industry runs on freebase adrenaline, vicarious thrills, misplaced loyalties and fundamental injustice. It’s the last one that I’m scratching today.

I rather like Mr. Gasol as a player: skilled, subtle, in addition to genetic gifts that mean millions in THIS particular, say, 40-year slice of history.

The rich get richer: corporate boxes overwhelm the importance of the (non-existent) “cheap seats” of the paying customers at boutique (and often publicly funded) stadiums; ticket prices increasingly escape even the middle class’s ability and willingness to pay; cities are held hostage (Hello Seattle! Hello Sacramento! to cite only this year’s most obvious NBA examples) by team owners demanding facilities upgrades; except in the NFL, second-tier cities can’t compete with the LAs and NYs and Bostons of the world (or Munchens and Madrids and Manchesters) for revenue or for the players who want their piece of it; and (curtailing a lengthy list), the athletes, who for all the perceived “injustices” of salary caps and the reality that their agents and the team owners still often exploit them, earn salaries for gaming that are obscene/fantastical/bizarre. BIG is here, as the NBA marketing gurus proclaim, and it’s amazing, really. Depressing, sometimes.

The poor. Under-privileged communities in North America, full of boys and young men dazzled by the prospects of NBA or NFL luxury, play football and basketball with a fever and an intensity of focus that suburban, middle-class kids can barely imagine, let alone match. The classroom, the Great Equalizer of education, looks shabby and slow, even demeaning, compared to the magnetic you might be NEXT! lure of sports stardom. (Baseball fields are big and high-maintenance and expensive, and make it less and less possible for inner-city kids to get great with glove and bat; fortunately, or not, islands of baseball-mad poverty – pre-eminently the Dominican Republic – fulfill the same player-production need. Hockey is an outlier among the major North American sports for its exquisite whiteness, mainly because of the astounding expense of playing it; like its brother sports, though, it has until fairly recently required and/or encouraged kids to neglect their educations in pursuing the puckhead dream.) Soccer clubs across the world profit from the sometimes-inspirational fact that footballers can rise from the lowest depths of poverty. It’s one of the best things about the “beautiful” game, the simplicity and cheapness of the sport at the introductory levels. Still, though, it takes sharp-eyed scouts and a well-funded club to find the raw athlete in the barrio and train him towards greatness – at least until a bigger team waves transfer millions.

I’m far from an economist, but the ones that I read and heed are clear: a world economy based upon such stark and accelerating inequalities is not just unfair but unsustainable. Something has to give. Watching the glitz of the NBA or the manic attention devoted to the off-season player draft in the juggernaut NFL, it’s hard to imagine that the system could break down. But as soon as there aren’t thousands upon thousands of eager consumers with serious entertainment habits and the money to indulge them, what happens to The Show then? Would anything be shot down faster by a global economic collapse than the games we pay so much to watch? This is not an outcome I’m praying for, let’s be clear, but it’s one that seems as inevitable as the bursting of the American housing bubble does in hindsight.

I love sports, and when Stephan Curry puts on a display like he did yesterday, I can still mute my brain and enjoy the grace and glory of athletic excellence. I still play, though that’s getting to be more grind than grins. The games will remain for the kids, I hope, and that will always be lovely. It maybe just won’t be the yellow brick road to fame and excess for the few, or the dazzlingly distracting reason for the majority to not bust their butts in the classroom. And maybe that wouldn’t be all bad.

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