Field of Schemes is about the scam wherein billionaire owners of sports teams dupe taxpayers into footing the bill for sports arenas which benefit those owners and not too many other people. It is, for the most part, pretty bland. As with the Enron scandal and suchlike, the big picture gets your blood boiling but hearing the details spelled out puts you to sleep before you can say "banality of evil." Especially given that this isn't one big scandal but dozens of little ones, all essentially the same, making for a rather repetitive book. Still, Christopher Priest manages to make this sort of material quite compelling every month in Black Panther... but he's a storyteller. Field of Schemes was written by journalists, and so what we get is a litany of facts (in this city there was this referendum that ended up like this so the city built a stadium costing this much and funded by this percent tax on this commodity of which the team owner pocketed this amount) but none of the pleasures of narrative. The authors do try to add some interest with quotes by earnest activists, the occasional short amusing anecdote (teapots appearing in the outfield in a stadium built on a landfill, etc.) and every so often a clever turn of phrase. But it's not enough for me to really recommend it.

What would have made it enough? Hard to say. Barring a sudden infusion of Priest Patter, perhaps the best route might have been an examination of the motives of the players in this little game. Start with the owners (or, as the book repeatedly calls nearly all of them, "barons.") Who are these people? What we get is a series of names; why not get into their heads a bit? Maybe that's not the sort of thing you'd put in a news story about the latest stadium bill, but this isn't a news story, it's a book. What drives these people to run these stadium scams? Money, of course — but why do they want it? At a certain point you've got a house everywhere you want one, you're already dining as well as you'd like every night — why waste your time grubbing for more? Of course, at a certain point money becomes less a medium of exchange than a tally of power, the ability to work your will with the political process... usually to make more money. Whee. Feedback loop. Aisle author Sam Barlow once directed me to a Washington Post bio of billionaire Michael Saylor which spent some time on this issue and made the point that at a certain point what money buys is access — whom you can have lunch with, whom you can get to come to your parties. And who is that? Mostly people with similarly stratospheric bankrolls — and they're miserable, neurotic freaks, because if they weren't, they wouldn't be chasing money this compulsively. Similar motives apparently drove Enron's Ken Lay, whose main financial concern, I've read, was having enough money that he could play the philanthropist and be the toast of Houston at countless society dinners. And Bill Gates is said to be merely pathologically competitive with money as a convenient scoring system. So let's actually meet some of these sports owners. Even non-fiction needs characterization.

Then comes the tool this particular set of "barons" uses to line their pockets: sports. Both authors identify themselves as sports fans, and the activists they choose to feature in the book all tend to be opposed to the various stadium plans primarily because they are themselves big sports fans and want to preserve historic ballparks. Lost is any substantive discussion of why the swindle works, why ballparks attract any visitors at all — perhaps because if you actually like sports, the attraction goes without saying. But it's worth, as they say in grad school, unpacking.

That sports are a means of making money is interesting, since sports are like money. Money only has value if people believe it does; you can eat a pizza, you can sleep on a bed, you can live in a house, but you can't do much of anything with a small piece of paper with a picture of a dead guy on it, so the fact that people are willing to trade the first three things for the last thing is really quite remarkable. Similarly, it seems to me that the main reason people watch sports is that they're a gateway to the sorts of big emotions that don't often come up in day-to-day life — giddy triumph, crushing heartbreak, nailbiting anticipation — but they only have that power if people decide they do. And which sports make people jump up and down and which elicit only yawns is pretty arbitrary. In the US most of the fist-pumping and so forth is reserved for baseball, football and basketball, but when I visited equally sports-mad Australia, it was all about the cricket and sailing. And then there are the three days every four years that figure skating dominates the media and the 1458 days that it's considered about as important as mixed doubles Scrabble. But no matter the sport, from middle school girls' lacrosse to Game 7 of the World Series, the outcomes aren't like those of wars or elections — they make not a whit of difference in the lives of the spectators, except psychologically. Or at least that was the case until relatively recently. Nowadays, it might well be the case that that series-winning grand slam that brings the crowd to its collective feet is what convinces the electorate to narrowly approve a new stadium which means that even those who don't even know the game took place have to pay an extra 1% on every purchase to fatten the wallets of the owners of the team. It might have been nice to see the whole cycle spelled out, rather than just one aspect of it: teams play games, and media outlets (which increasingly are the owners of those teams) treat the outcomes of those games as if they were newsworthy, making for another nice feedback loop as people follow the coverage in the media and begin to care, and to the extent that news is new information the people care about, the outcomes of sporting events thereby become newsworthy despite their material irrelevance; this public interest generates revenue for the teams in various ways, from ticket sales to merchandising to television contracts, the teams making money because their appearance on a particular station gathers eyeballs which will look at the advertising the station sells; and this public interest also gives the owners leverage to run the stadium scam, so that even those who couldn't care less end up spending a chunk of every workday laboring to make money that will end up in the hands of a sports team owner, who will use it to pad his bank account to the point that other rich people will come to his parties. Welcome to our world.

How did things reach this point? I don't know, and I would have liked the book to tell me. What are the origins of professional sport? Pro sports leagues didn't just spring up ex nihilo; at what point does a game played chiefly for the diversion of the players generate enough spectators that there is profit to be had in selling tickets? And why? Before the feedback cycle described above kicks into gear, what gets people interested in watching sports?

Much of it clearly has to do with tribalism. This weekend the American media was abuzz with a sporting sextuple-header: the Belmont Stakes horse race, Tyson/Lewis boxing match, French Open tennis finals, NBA finals, Stanley Cup finals, and World Cup were all happening at once. In most of the world, the last of these is by far the most important of the six. Feh. I can't stand the World Cup, and not just because like most Americans I find soccer about as exciting as a test pattern; all sporting events that pit country vs. country bother me. For one, it's just so arbitrary. At least in pro sports leagues there's a draft to assure that the weakest teams get first crack at the incoming talent; in international competition it's just a matter of who happens to be living in which country. But worse than that is the nationalism, which is odious enough in the general case but becomes truly nauseating when people start declaring that the virile Paraguayans are superior to the lowly Bolivians on the basis of whose team kicked a ball around better for ninety minutes. And from what I've seen, verbally trashing other countries seems to be the main draw for a lot of those following the event.

I was tempted to say that one advantage of American sports was that in pitting city against city instead of country against country they avoid this sort of tribalism, but after a moment's thought that's preposterous. There's plenty of inter-city and inter-region bashing where sports are concerned. Often this is a form of overcompensation; it's hard to miss that football's strongest hold is on the Plains and Deep South — "We may be desperately poor, rank last in the country in education and public health, and frighten the rest of the country with our politics, but dagnabbit, we can kick yer ass at this here meaningless game!" — while I've heard more than one sportsradio host lambaste the Bay Area for having the worst sports fans in the country, sneering without irony that "they'd rather be out at restaurants or art galleries or enjoying the weather than watching a ballgame! Even when the team's winning! What's wrong with these people?"

This is another issue I would have liked to have seen explored more deeply, key as it is to the whole stadium swindle: the way sports cash in on and indeed attempt to subsume civic pride. We've got a whole industry based on cities having metaphorical wars with one another. This is a good thing? This competition that isn't even based on any qualities of the cities involved, not even their ability to produce residents with prowess at frivolous games (since the players are gathered from elsewhere)? Field of Schemes is explicitly pitched in part to fans angry that their favorite teams have left town and wondering how this came to pass; there's also quite a bit of ink spent on the repeated threat to bolt; and of course one of the chief concerns of the authors is to paint portraits of urban neighborhoods. So how about a chapter on how cities are faring after supposed disaster has struck? How's Los Angeles doing without an NFL team? Even an iota different from how it was doing with one? Is Hartford ruined after losing its status as a major-league city in at least one sport? I'm convinced that these stadiums are bad news, but this line of argument makes the authors seem a bit like politicians who, while calling for gun control, also talk up what big hunting fans they are lest they be painted as anti-American. The anti-stadium activists we meet are, as noted, nearly all big sports fans. Don't worry! We may not like Comerica Park or New Comiskey, but we're sure not art-gallery-attending, restaurant-visiting, sports-hating pinkos! But why not? Is sports anything more than a locus of nationalism and non-pharmacological drug? There's at least a feint in the direction of answering this, a mention of the pancultural bleachers at Yankee Stadium back in the old days, but supporting sports because sometimes people of different races end up sitting next to each other is a bit like supporting the space program because of Teflon. This sort of discussion may be outside the scope of the book as it stands, but that may be precisely why it's a dull book.

A quick note on my personal relationship to sports: I official gave up following them in January of '01, but have gone off and on the wagon in the interim. Most recently I found myself keeping pretty close tabs on the Lakers/Kings series, having more or less arbitrarily decided as a kid that I hated the Lakers and thus relishing the prospect of having them taken down by a team that was a laughingstock for the first fifteen years that I followed basketball. And as with the painful Chicago/Utah series in '98, I rediscovered how agonizing it is for one's sport of choice to be so firmly in the hands of the referees. Bob Costas says that the appeal of sports is that it's drama without a script, that unlike in a sports movie, you don't know whether that last shot is going to drop. But in basketball, the outcome of most every play depends less on how the ball bounces than on how the referees choose to call it — because something could be whistled on nearly every trip down the floor, and it's all a matter of when they blow and when they don't — and after a while it's just not fun. I gave up in frustration. Which is for the best, since you don't need to buy into the entire Dhamma to realize that caring about sports is the sort of attachment you should be overjoyed to cut.

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