SBJ/January 7 - 13, 2002/Opinion

Truest team colors: Red, white and blue

When tragedy strikes a field of play in the form of the death or serious injury of a participant, the tendency is to shrink back and ponder whether the exercise is worth the cost. When tragedy strikes a nation on the scale that it did to the United States during the year just past, many activities come under such scrutiny, with sports in the forefront.

Properly, the immediate reaction of those in charge was to suspend the games until the initial shock subsided, but many commentators wouldn't leave it at that. They expounded at length on the frivolity of our pastimes and their insignificance in the Great Scheme of Things. To hear some tell it, the stadiums could stay shut indefinitely without noticeable loss.

But when the stadiums did reopen, a week or so after Sept. 11, an interesting thing happened. They became not only a focus of expressions of national solidarity and rededication, but the primary focus. Flags were waved there, and heads bowed and hands linked. If some of the demonstrations were orchestrated, the emotions they evoked were genuine. Sports — or, at least, their settings — turned out to be more important than many had imagined.

The communal nature of sports gatherings is no news, of course (they don't play "The Star Spangled Banner" before the movies), but societal trends have accentuated that characteristic. Technological advance, workplace specialization and, perhaps, discomfort over the growing scale of just about everything have caused civic participation to shrink to the point where half the eligible population doesn't bother to vote in presidential elections.

Just-plain neighborliness also is becoming more rare. First we got into the habit of phoning one another instead of visiting, now we e-mail instead of phone. E.T. had more contact with his home folks than do some of us. For better or worse, attendance at sporting events is the only way that a lot of people get out and about with appreciable numbers of their fellow citizens.

At the heart of sports' American centrality is the manner in which people regard their teams. Professional clubs are private businesses, but they bear city names and are widely thought of as community property.

Sports executives play on that sentiment when they seek taxpayer financing of new stadiums, even when their teams' ticket-pricing policies effectively bar a large portion of the population from going to games at the resulting facilities. Then they express dismay when their general stewardship is criticized, or when there are protests over their auctioning off of the naming rights to the edifices that public dollars built.

Answers to the question "Whose team is it, anyway?" can cut in various ways.

Sports' exalted position in this land comes into play in other contexts. A labor strike against a company like, say, General Motors would have far greater economic consequences than a baseball strike, but it wouldn't generate nearly as much public heat. Similarly, the job losses that have accompanied the downward business cycle at many companies in recent months have dwarfed any that the liquidation of the Minnesota Twins would bring, but with only a fraction of the hand wringing.

Team owners and their sponsorship partners well might take pride in the unifying role their enterprises played in the weeks after Sept. 11. They were bigger than we thought, and, probably, bigger than they themselves supposed.

At the same time, though, they and their leagues or associations should recognize the obligations that their special status entails. Besides the consideration that any business owes its customers, teams have the additional duty of nurturing a shared civic resource. The red-white-and-blue fan turnouts of late 2001 said that, loud and clear.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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