Some years ago a story made the rounds about a diligent but obtuse Boy Scout who made a career of helping elderly women safely across the streets, whether they wanted to go or not. It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty if in fact that zealous tyke grew up to be Ralph Nader, but to judge from Nader's latest foray—into the world of professional sports—they must have been at least cousins. If the sports buffs of America weren't victims before, they will be before long.
The group that will be marketing the Nader line in this area is called, cunningly, "Fight to Advance the Nation's Sports"—FANS. The insipid acronym and its etymology speak volumes I suspect about the organization itself.
Certainly it is true, as the Nader group contends, that professional sports have much in common with big business: the financial stakes are, after all, rather substantial. Yet the sports business is often pursued with boyish enthusiasm by owners, athletes, and spectators alike. Athletic events are capable of moving people to violent passions, to laughter, and to tears. Although Nader is in many respects remarkably lifelike, there seems to be little room in his philosophy for the emotions of living people.
This is not to imply that all the group's goals are utterly without merit. There is some justice in their claim that taxpayers ought to have a better idea of the degree to which they subsidize professional sports via municipally funded arenas. It is ironic, as they note, that many taxpayers who have helped finance a stadium are unable to obtain tickets to events held in that stadium. Moreover, taxpayers who have no interest whatsoever in stadiums or sports are, in effect, forced to help underwrite them, forced to pay for something in which they have not the slightest interest and from which they derive not the slightest benefit. If that is what upsets Nader, I can sympathize with him: I know just how it feels.
I know because when I got into my car this morning and put the key into the antitheft interlocking ignition, lights flashed and buzzers buzzed to remind me to fasten my retracting three-point seat belt and shoulder restraint. I have not the slightest use for any of these gewgaws; I never asked for them; I was forced to buy them. If it is wrong to force a man to buy a stadium seat, why is it right to force him to buy a seat belt? The only answer seems to be a willingness on the part of many Americans to have someone else make decisions for them.
Perhaps that is the ultimate appeal of the so-called consumer movement: it offers a comforting secular fundamentalism. Thou shalt buckle up; thou shalt comparison shop; thou shalt not partake of artificial sweeteners. These precepts are harmless enough as articles of individual faith. As articles of federal law, however, they represent a devastating loss of the liberty to choose freely between alternatives. That loss of choice must necessarily be followed by the absolution of the individual from any responsibility for his or her own actions. It is not merely coincidental that we are witnessing an unprecedented push for consumerism at the same time as we are witnessing a murder trial in which the defense plea is: "Not guilty by virtue of network television programming."
It is worth examining the mandate claimed by the consumer advocates to justify their intrusions into the private lives of American citizens. In this particular case, the president of FANS, Peter Gruenstein, is hoping that 10-20,000 sports enthusiasts will elect to join his group. How does that maximum figure compare with other notable statistics from the world of sports?
On the opening day of the 1958 baseball season, 78,672 fans paid to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants. If the Nader group showed up in force that day, they would have accounted for just under 25 percent of the paid attendance—not a majority, certainly, but a substantial percentage. The same number of "sports consumers," however, would represent only about six percent of the crowd that attends the Indianapolis 500 each year and something less than three percent of the gate at National Football League games on any given weekend. It seems extraordinarily impertinent that so few could presume to speak for so many.
In actual fact, FANS would be hard put to make much of a power play even in the Florida Shuffleboard Association , which boasted 55,000 members in 1973 (and which, presumably, has limited its pronouncements to the game in question as played within the confines of that peninsula).
Pontificating on professional sports is something new for Nader, and it represents a very disturbing precedent. The consumer movement, once concerned only with those things that are life-sustaining, now turns its dour gaze upon those things that are life-enhancing. What will be next?
Religion? "Nader task force reports on organized religion," the newspapers will say. "Consumer panel rates top 10, evaluates 'salvation' prospects."
Or perhaps art? I expect to read any day now that the cannon blasts should be deleted from the 1812 Overture because prolonged exposure to such blasts has been linked with damaged tympanic membranes and antisocial behavior among laboratory animals. Moreover, that same report will continue, if all orchestra parts were transposed to a single piano score, the cost-effectiveness of the piece could be greatly increased with the savings passed on to the music consumer.
Since the consumer movement bears more than a passing resemblance to the temperance movement, it is not inappropriate to recall the essay on alcohol written by H.L. Mencken a good many years ago. Allowing that liquor could cause considerable physical and psychological damage, Mencken nevertheless chose to sing its praises. "A man's sole mission in life is not that of keeping himself alive," he concluded. "He has not done his full duty either to himself or to his fellow men when he has barred all toxin from his viscera. In brief, he must not be too servile to the science of life, lest he forget the art of living. "
I, for one, will drink to that.
Mr. Fasolino is a free-lance writer based in New Rochelle, New York.