Passing the Buck

The press release announcing the new uniforms for the Milwaukee Bucks explains the significance of the shade of blue that wraps around the inside collar of the jersey: “The inside of the collar features a blue stripe, representative of the blue collar work ethic of not only the Bucks, but also of the city and state that the team proudly represents.”

And indeed, perhaps no state has become more synonymous with the working class (and its struggles) than Wisconsin, which passed one of the nation’s first workers compensation laws in 1932 and was the first state to allow public employees to form unions in 1959. The state’s other two professional franchises further celebrate the working classes and principles of collectivism: the “Brewers” honor the laborers in Milwaukee’s most famous industry, and the Packers are the only community-owned professional sports team in America, a fact that has prompted others to refer to them as a “socialist” organization. The labor history of Wisconsin wasn’t lost on Alice Cooper, who, in Wayne’s Worldeducates Wayne and Garth backstage about the current of collectivism that runs through Wisconsin and its largest city in Wayne’s World: “I think one of the most interesting aspects about Milwaukee is the fact that it’s the only major American city to have ever elected three socialist mayors.”

But the blue collar on the Bucks’ new uniforms seems ironic in its present context since the same governor who has championed keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee has also done the most to strip away at the rights of the workers that the “blue collar” symbolically honors. Upon his election in 2010, Governor Scott Walker, you may recall, systematically dismantled collective bargaining rights for public employees—which led 100,000 people to take over the capitol building in Madison in protest, which led to his recall and then to his reelection. As Dan Kaufman details, emboldened by his reelection, Walker further began to undermine the rights of all unions (not just those for public employees) by introducing Act 10, a “right to work” initiative that prohibits unions from collecting dues. It’s probably worth noting that while Wisconsin has historically been a forerunner of organized labor movements, there’s also a competing impulse toward right-wing, laissez-faire ideology: the state did, after all, elect Joe McCarthy to the US Senate (and in the process unseat Robert La Follette, Jr., son of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the leader of the Progressive Party), who would go on to view progressives as so many witches to be hunted. Currently, in addition to Walker, Wisconsin has also re-elected eight times arch-conservative US Representative Paul Ryan—Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate—who made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his staff.

Morry Gash/AP

Morry Gash/AP

Compounding the irony, though, is the fact that Walker—a great champion of privatization—put forth a plan for the Bucks’ new stadium that depends on $220 million in public funding. Walker calls the plan “Pay Their Way” (initially called “Cheaper to Keep Them”) because the tax-paying public will “help the Bucks pay their own way.” So in order to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee (if the plan didn’t pass, which it did by a vote of 21-10, the ownership group could have sold the team back to the NBA who would then look to relocate it in a different market) a group of billionaire hedge-fund managers (is there any other kind?)—headed by Marc Lasry, Wesley Edens, and Jamie Dinan, who bought the Bucks for $550 million in 2014—are provided with financial assistance from a state that recently cut $250 million from its education budget. The plan seems an awful lot like the most dreaded form of financing for a fiscal conservative: a government handout. More importantly, providing public funding for a sports team while denying it from education is an especially strategic and cynical maneuver by Walker given the centrality of the university to Wisconsin’s identity. Developed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Wisconsin Idea asserts that “education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundary of the classroom” and makes the state’s university system the focal point of public life.1 Making the plan even more unseemly, Walker hired Bucks co-owner Jon Hammes to be co-finance chair of his 2016 presidential campaign, giving the stadium subsidy the appearance of a political favor.

Walker defends this apparent double-standard by saying that keeping the Bucks will foster economic growth, and the Bucks themselves released a promotional/propaganda film touting the “ripple effect” that promises “jobs, growth, and opportunity.”

But such a “ripple effect” is largely imaginary: numerous studies by both conservatives and liberals have argued that stadium subsidies have no impact on economic development. In fact, the effect could be detrimental, as Michael Rosen, a teacher’s union leader in Milwaukee explained to Dave Zirin at The Nation: “The arena and related real estate deals do not address Milwaukee’s good jobs crisis and will do nothing for the unemployed and underemployed in the areas near the north side and south side neighborhoods. The county’s contribution of $80 million which is to be generated through collecting unpaid debts and fines, mainly from our poorest citizens is unconscionable and irresponsible.” Walker touted the proposal as fiscally conservative because technically no new taxes would need to be levied (the plan relies, instead, on grants and tax-emptions), but even Walker’s billionaire backers and right-wing ideologues the Koch Brothers criticized the plan, claiming that it relies on fuzzy math and noting that stadium subsidies rarely benefit taxpayers.

Of course, sports teams do provide benefits in social capital and quality of life that can help offset some of the economic burden. After studying the economic and psychological impact of publicly-funded sports stadiums, two researchers recently concluded that “[s]ports may make a city happy, but they are unlikely to make a city rich.” The study, though, doesn’t account for the connection between the two and how appeals to psychological factors (such as a symbolic blue stripe on a uniform) might be preyed upon to help pass legislation that otherwise wouldn’t be in the city’s best interest. In other words, what makes the whole situation surrounding the Bucks’ new stadium so dispiriting is that sports fandom is being used to foist burdensome subsidies onto the public with potentially damaging effects. The sweetheart deal for the team’s billionaire owners is merely one of several instances in which a depressed economic city has been asked to fund its city’s stadium projects as a way of minimizing risk for the wealthy owner(s): citizens of Detroit are being asked to fund a new stadium for the Red Wings even though the city declared bankruptcy in 2013; the city of Cleveland has been tasked with subsidizing its major sports teams during a time of economic stagnation. The consequences for not providing these subsidies are dire. Ask any Seattle Supersonics fan about the questionable way that Clay Bennett used stadium subsidies to hold the city hostage; when Seattle refused to kowtow to his exorbitant demands, he moved the team to Oklahoma City (which, according to one of the minority owners, was the plan all along).

As sociologists have studied, sports teams provide a diverse population with a collective identity, a way of imagining a community, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase. And although such identity formation may seem positive, it’s frequently used to exploit the public in the name of crony capitalism. Franchise owners and politicians have figured out how to manipulate community sentiment and funding, which they then use for their own capitalist gains, employing collectivist tactics that they would normally oppose, if not work to undermine, on ideological grounds. As a scholar for the Manhattan Institute (again, a conservative think tank) succinctly puts it, channeling a more foreboding version of the ghostly exhortation from Field of Dreams: “If you build it for them, they will fleece you.” What’s surprising isn’t that sports teams provide a means of collective pride and identity but that they’ve become one of the only means of collective identity in the twenty-first century: the attack on unions and the slashing of educational funding have led to the further fracturing and dismantling of whatever political power working- and middle-class Americans might wield. The kind of the municipal collective identity that sports teams provide, then, offers only the illusion of political power and painfully, ironically further contributes to the stripping away of power from a citizenry since it offers a way for plutocrats and politicians to consolidate their own power and influences those citizens to act against their own best interests.

Below the aforementioned unintentionally ironic “blue collar,” at the base of the Bucks new uniforms, read the words “Fear the Deer” that serves, again, according to the press release, “as a reminder to the players each time they put on their uniforms of the aggressive attitude and team spirit they are expected to carry with them onto the court.” The fact that the jerseys are required by NBA rules to remain tucked-in (Rule H-4) means that only the players themselves will ever actually see the slogan, perhaps fittingly concealing from the fans that it’s of their own club that Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites should be fearful.
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1 Not satisfied with cutting the educational budget, Walker also proposed revisionsto the Wisconsin Idea that would have deleted the phrase “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth,” widely viewed as a not-so-thinly veiled attack on academic freedom. In pragmatist fashion, Walker proposed adding the phrase “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” The furor over his heavy-handed editing caused something heretofore unknown in Walker: a conscience. He rescinded his proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea, content perhaps that his budget cuts would do more damage to the Wisconsin Idea than changing some words.

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