More Than A Game: NWU symposium examines the politics and economics behind American sports

More than a game

Nebraska Wesleyan University’s 11th annual Visions and Ventures symposium brought four experts in the economics, ethics and politics of sports to campus for a wide-ranging look at the state of America’s sports culture.

Sports writer and historian David Zirin examined the rare but pivotal moments when athletes have used their public platform to send powerful political messages.

In response to a 2010 Arizona immigration law (Arizona SB 1070) that players viewed as draconian, the Phoenix Suns donned “Los Suns” jerseys. Zirin said the significance of this protest is even larger than the considerable attention it drew. “Imagine Joe Namath leading the Jets onto the field in jerseys protesting the Vietnam War.” The unity behind this gesture, he said, is comparable.

“This wasn’t a moment,” Zirin said of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s statement on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. “This was a movement.”

Zirin also pointed to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam. His stance led him to be stripped of his heavywieght title. Ali said he could not justify fighting there with so much injustice at home.

Sports sociologist Harry Edwards examined how the mainstream media deal (or fail to deal) with the stories of black athletes.

Edwards said those stories are connected to what he called the “one-way and selective” desegregation of major college sports.

Powerful, previously white-only programs integrated when doing so advanced their competitiveness and profitability. As a result, Edwards said, blacks are today disproportionally represented in revenue-generating sports like football and basketball, while other sports at the same schools remain predominantly white. Edwards said the message to black athletes is: “If you don’t bring in money, we don’t need you.”

Edwards believes that changing this dynamic requires telling this story. And he expressed limited faith in the mainstream media’s willingness and ability to tell it. While desegregation has reached American locker rooms, Edwards said it has hardly touched American press boxes.

“When you turn on the television and see Nebraska versus Oklahoma… and it looks like Ghana versus Nigeria, there’s a story that’s not being told,” said Edwards.

Former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation Donna Lopiano echoed Harry Edwards’s concern about a lack of diversity in sports media. As she spoke on the impact of Title IX in college athletics, she cited an AP survey that found 94 percent of newspaper sports editors are male.

That imbalance hinders the coverage of women’s athletics. “It used to be that horses and dogs got more coverage on sports pages than women did,” she said. “Women very recently passed them.”

While these realities show how far we remain from gender equity in sports, Lopiano is upbeat about the long-term future. She said in another 20 years, athletes, parents, grandparents, coaches and athletic department administrators will have all grown up under Title IX, bringing its generational impact into full force.

She closed with the story of an award-winning collegiate middle-distance runner and her 6-year-old little sister. When Lopiano asked the girl whether she played sports like her sister, the girl answered, “I run the 800.”

Lopiano was inwardly skeptical that 6-year-olds anywhere were formally racing 800s. So, later, she asked the girl’s older sister about it. She explained that her sister accompanied her at track practices, where she did, in fact, run 800s. “She’s the rabbit,” she said. “Coach gives her a lap head start and tells us to catch her.”

Lopiano laughed and nodded. Then the runner added, “But that’s not why my little sister runs the 800. She runs the 800 because no one ever told her she couldn’t.”

As Title IX turns 40, Lopiano said its true impact is still another 20 years down the road.

Economist Robert Baade examines the economic impact of sports on their host communities. His analyses make him particularly skeptical of the public’s prospects of a return on investments in publicly financed sports stadiums.

He pointed to the tendency for the owners and professional athletes who benefit from such projects to take their money outside the local economy. He also spoke about the trend in most stadium projects toward luxury boxes and away from general seating as well as the tendency for ticket prices at these new venues to increase. “These projects use public funds to build stadiums that cater to elite audiences,” he said.

Baade suggested that local conditions like lower population densities west of the Mississippi somewhat mitigate the risks of projects like Lincoln’s Haymarket Arena.

The 2004-2005 NHL lockout provided an opportunity for economists to measure arenas’ economic impact on host communities. While cities feared a negative impact with the lockout, Baade said many actually saw a boon as people shifted their spending toward locally owned and operated entertainment.

“The devil’s in the details,” Baade said. “It’s our responsibility to dig deeper and do real analysis.”