Editor's Note: Good Sports—and Bad


As a longtime, slightly obsessive, and wide-ranging sports fan–as a kid, I maintained basement shrines to an international all-star team that included the likes of baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, NFL placekicker Garo Yepremian, French cyclist Daniel Morelon, Olympic decathlete Nikolai Avilov, and soccer immortal Pele–I'm especially happy to introduce this issue of reason, which contains a couple of great stories about the intersection of athletics, politics, and American culture.

In "Locker-Room Liberty" (page 46), Associate Editor Matt Welch (reportedly a former Little League All Star) surveys recent books by and about football legend "Broadway" Joe Namath, baseball slugger Dick Allen, and basketball superstar Oscar Robertson. Welch argues persuasively that Namath, Allen, and the Big O deserve "credit for encouraging individual freak flags to fly," for helping America to become a looser, more tolerant, more libertarian place. In very different ways, they represented something new and exciting in the stultifying world of professional sports: mavericks who played to the beat of a different drum.

Welch zeroes in on the generally ignored reason they were able to do what they did: economic power. All negotiated record-breaking contracts early in their careers, and they leveraged their ability to win games and put fans in the seats to play by their own rules. (Robertson went further still, waging the court case that eventually brought free agency to the National Basketball Association.) More than that, says Welch, they and others like them forced "reluctant and occasionally hostile audiences to confront issues of race, war, and free expression, and we are all better for their efforts."

Daniel McGraw focuses on a different aspect of professional athletics in "Demolishing Sports Welfare" (page 32). Well-heeled and well-connected team owners have long colluded with willing and delusional politicians to broker sweetheart deals that pick the public's pockets in every possible way.

From 1990 to 2003, reports McGraw, "there were 66 major construction and renovation projects for professional sports stadiums and arenas in the U.S., costing $17.3 billion." Sixty percent of the funding–over $10 billion–came from taxpayers whose concerns were either ignored completely or simply brushed aside. The good news? Two court cases–one about eminent domain and one about the National Football League's monopoly power–may signal the end of stadium welfare as we know it.

Let's hope so. One of the things that has always bothered me about professional sports is that they typically take place not in houses that Babe Ruth built but palaces for which fans and non-fans alike pay through the nose.