'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Sacramento Deflated (Part 2) 

An air of resignation has settled over Sacramento in regard to the loss of the city's NBA franchise, the Sacramento Kings. Our mayor, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, has publicly stated that there is nothing more that the city can do to retain the team. The Kings will only stay in Sacramento if negotiations to move the team to Anaheim collapse. No one thinks that such an outcome is likely, and the more cynically minded believe that an agreement for the team to play in The Pond, the sports arena in Anaheim, has already been reached, concealed for the purpose of ensuring high levels of attendance in Sacramento until the end of the season.

For Sacramento, this is the best possible outcome, although the mayor will persist in efforts to construct a publicly subsidized entertainment facility. In the absence of the Kings, and Governor Jerry Brown's effort to redirect state redevelopment funds towards education, as given expression by his remark that we have to put education first and entertainment second, the probability of such a project going forward has dropped significantly. Without the Kings, it will be even more difficult to persuade the public to support any subsidy, and, without redevelopment funds, it will be hard to develop a plausible financial plan to pay for building and operating it. Upon being asked specifically about the use of redevelopment funds to build stadiums for football teams, such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders, Brown stated, Private enterprise should be able to survive on its own, as witnessed at Pac Bell Park. His reference to Pac Bell Park alludes to the fact that the owners of the San Francisco Giants built a stadium south of Market in the 1990s without the use of such funds.

So, instead of directing municipal resources towards a redevelopment scheme that will require millions of subsidy dollars to enrich the owners of a sports franchise, Sacramento can now rationally attempt to address the needs of the city's people, such as indigent health care, recreational activities, assistance for the homeless, who, by the way, just got evicted from their self-governed camp along the river, treatment for the mentally disordered, police and fire protection and affordable housing, among others. By liberating itself from the neoliberal insistence that the city must be gentrified with municipal funds to provide a comfortable entertainment playground for middle and upper middle class people who predominately live on the city's periphery, Sacramento can focus its resources upon improving the city's quality of life, not just for people who can afford events at a glamourous entertainment facility and patronize the upscale restaurants and bars associated with it, but for all of the people who live within the various communities within its boundaries. In this, Sacramento can set an example for other cities around the country to emulate. Yes, there is life after the loss of a professional sports franchise, and a pretty good one with possibilities that were foreclosed by the demands of the team's millionaire owners and their fans.

But, beyond this, there is an interesting social question. Over the past couple of weeks, I have perused the Sactown Royalty website, where local Kings fans have expressed their dismay over the prospect of losing the franchise. While some have expressed a predictable right wing anger towards those who would dare suggest that the city should use its funds to assist the homeless instead of subsidizing an arena for the owners of the Kings, the wealthy Maloofs, many others say that they will be adrift without the Kings and the NBA. Much of their life away from work appears to have been centered around going to Kings games, watching Kings games on television and following the NBA more generally. It is easy to dismiss them as a subculture of obsessed fans, but I think that this is mistaken. There are a lot of people who believe that Sacramento is nothing without the Kings, and have a limited concept of fulfillment through participating within the larger community around them. Instead, they conflate their gratification with the ability of the Maloofs to enrich themselves while providing an entertainment facility for them. The notion that their lives might be better in the absence of their deference to the Maloofs doesn't occur to them. Fans have accepted a neo-feudal identity demanded of them by the Maloofs and the NBA. As a result, we are subjected to fans complaining on local radio sports talk shows about what the Maloofs have put up with, as if the Maloofs have been victimized because of the city's failure to subsidize their basketball team.

Of course, it is easy to ridicule this, but, if we do so, we miss something more important. Professional sports are serving the purpose of atomizing society in such a way as to impair the ability of people to see themselves as part of a larger collective. Or, perhaps, more accurately, professional sports have substituted an innocuous collective identity for one that would encourage people to understand how they could work together and challenge those who take advantage of them and worsen the conditions of their daily lives. Embedded within this fandom is a tendency to induce people to accept a conservative, socially Darwinian vision of society that they might otherwise never accept, hence, the willingness to cast the Maloofs as victims of a government that refuses subsidize them. The means by which we can overcome the allure of this branded form of social identity is not readily apparent. For those of us on the left, we should consider how to confront this dilemma, a dilemma that is central to the persistence of neoliberalism, and, possibly, capitalism itself.

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