Many years ago Karl Marx declared that religion as an institution served as the “opiate of the masses”. For the last century however, that equation has changed, as the role of popular spectator supported athletic competition has supplanted this need of a distraction from the ordinary within society. Sports, if you will, is the Quaalude of the modern working class.
Yesterday at my job at a major medical supplies warehouse on the outskirts of Memphis Tennessee the crowded stalls and stacks of the building are abuzz with the news of the impending departure of John Calapari, who up until today was the successful coach of the University of Memphis D1 men’s basketball team. It seems that a year removed from losing the National Championship game Mr. Calapari has been tempted by a massive contract from the renowned basketball team/college at the University of Kentucky. Chief among the obvious reasons for assuming this position for Mr. Calapari are money and national recognition, and despite attempts to match UK’s offer, the coach in question would be hard pressed to deny himself such a promotion into the world of stature that only the television can create.
While congratulations must go out to Calapari and his family for this the recognition of his hard work and the success in attaining such a position, the wake of destruction that he leaves here in this struggling city is quite impressive. He played hardball from a great bargaining position and won, as his record and loyal recruits gave him the power to demand whatever he wanted. This proposal, and the people from which Calapari was demanding payment from however goes beyond the boosters and budget of the University of Memphis, and in a real sense, this deal is emblematic with the curious and depressing state in which sports exist today.
Around this time last year Clay Bennett, the owner of what was then the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA demanded that the city of Seattle build his team a new arena or he was going to move the team. The city, which was one of the first to see noticeable signs of the incoming economic collapse refused, and the Supersonics are now the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a few weeks New York City will unveil two new baseball stadiums for their American and National League teams. The new Yankee stadium, whose predictably fascist architecture holds a record number of seats so expensive that only corporate backers can possibly afford them, was built largely though tax money. Not far away from that behemoth of evil rests the new home of the Mets; Citi Bank field, which secures the Mets a spot at number two on the list of most ironic business-backed naming rights stadium debacles (behind the Astro’s Minute Made park, formerly known as Enron Field).
These are of course just a sample of the thousands of stories of the morally ambiguous relationship between sports and their host cities. Stadium kickbacks, a lax criminal policing of out-of control players, and the constant price gauging of the consumer have become an almost accepted norm, but this experience with Calapari creates an even more interesting phenomenon here in Memphis. Memphis is an economically depressed city with the usual problems of unemployment and crime that accompany the rampant poverty here. Like in many southern cities and towns, the local college serves as the main venue of sporting entertainment (a fact made even more ironic by the lack of economic support given to the academic programs of the same institutions). Like Bennett and others like him, Calapari controlled the destiny of the economic health of the city in his hands as head of the beloved Tigers. Like Bennett Calapari decided to follow the money, and as such has cast asunder the success of his former team. One of my co-workers lamented that this loss is as devastating for the city as a hypothetical departure of FedEx, the major employer of Memphis. Fred Smith, the CEO of the company met with Calapari before the coach decided to leave in a last ditch attempt to convince him to stay, even going as far as to offer the coach FedEx stock. This rumored stock offer comes when FedEx is cutting jobs and trimming the salaries of its employees to stay financially sound.
I am in the small minority of people who A) don’t care about college sports, and B) think the players should be paid. Both reasons root from my belief and love of Professional sports and in the functional nature of paying those who provide entertainment. But when this collective obsession of ours turns from a way to enjoy everyday life into a hostage situation over the economic future of our city, there has been a corruption in the wonderful equation that is sport. Perhaps someone should remind our elected officials of this whenever they are interjecting our public money into an organization or group that will undoubtedly collectively screw us, and then repeat the same line of “the nature of the business”.