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Ralph Nader, love him or leave him, usually gets done what he wants done. Some folks laughed when he began his campaign to do away with the Corvair. Well, just try to buy a new one. A lot more chortled when Nader said he was out to get rid of the two-party system. Now, thanks to his run, Republicans now control the executive branch, both chambers of Congress, and the Supreme Court. Voilà! No more two-party system.
So maybe D.C. United’s new owner shouldn’t try to pull a George W. Bush by sticking his hand into the public till for funds for a new stadium. Unless, that is, he’d like Nader to smack it.
Nader only recently launched an offensive in an arena one normally wouldn’t associate with the well-intentioned activist: sports. In January, FansFirst!, a group under one of Nader’s umbrella do-gooder organizations, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, hung its shingle downtown.
FansFirst! intends to eventually expand its mission to include such causes as fighting for more affordable tickets. But, for now, the use of public money to build sports arenas, an issue Nader raised while on the stump during his eventful Green Party run, is the front-burner topic.
“That gives us plenty to work with,” says Shawn McCarthy, the Nader raider who is the founding administrator of FansFirst!.
FansFirst!’s ire has already been directed at stadium ventures in St. Louis and Detroit, where hundreds of millions of tax dollars that could have been used to improve failing school systems or decayed infrastructure have instead been put into baseball and/or football venues.
Now, however, Nader’s new group is steeling itself for the likelihood that its own back yard will soon turn into a battleground. As President Bush learned during his figureheadship of the Texas Rangers, corporate welfare is alive and thriving in the sports world. City councils and state legislatures now routinely find money in the budget to build stadiums, usually under the threat of losing a sports franchise to another jurisdiction that is willing to cough up the dough.
In fact, the D.C. area is rare in that its highest-profile pro teamsthe Wizards, Caps, and Redskinsplay in new buildings that were constructed primarily with private monies. But the new owner of United might try to buck this local trend. The long-rumored transfer of the MLS franchise to Colorado financier Philip Anschutz was, at last, consummated earlier this month.
With the recent jettisoning of Jeff Agoos and Richie Williams, the devolution of United from star-laden championship squad to gaggle of no-names is almost complete. But, even with the start of the season just a month away, the new ownership apparently doesn’t want to address the team’s talent-depletion ills just yet. Instead, much like FansFirst!, Anschutz would like the issue of the use of public monies to build stadiums debated right away. Unlike FansFirst!, he will likely be arguing the pro side.
The Washington Post reported last week that United’s new regime is already talking about finding a new home to replace RFK Stadium, which, though 40 years old and very poorly run, ranks as one of the premier large-scale venues for soccer in terms of sight lines and coziness. But Anschutz, who already owned several other clubs in the moribund league before adding United, wants smaller, soccer-only facilities built for his teams. As soon as he pitches any area government to build United’s pitch for him, Anschutz will find himself in Nader’s cross hairs.
“A guy with $18 billion doesn’t need to be asking for tax dollars,” says McCarthy. “But, in every city where [Anschutz] owns a team, there is now talk of trying to build a stadium for him with public money. That’s typical of sports owners today. These are billionaires whose teams are their play toys, and they try to gouge as much money as they can out of the taxpayers. We’ll have to wait to see how much he’s going to want from the District, but, in our view, even one dime is too much.”
Nader’s public image isn’t as much of a sports guy. And he’s generally viewed as a soldier who fights for only the most under of underdogs. But Nader’s actually a lifelong fan of that ultimate sports overdog, the New York Yankees, a franchise so intrinsically powerful that cheering for it was, in Nader’s youth, compared to “rooting for U.S. Steel.” (Comic Joe E. Lewis and newspaperman Red Smith used to get credit for the phrase, but L.A. columnist Jim Murray, who outlived both, went to his grave attributing the remark
FansFirst! is actually Nader’s second attempt to combine sports and activism: In the late ’70s, a decade after he killed off the Corvair, he founded a fan-friendly advocacy organization, FANS, whose acronymwhich stood for Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sportsseems as forced as a Richard Hamilton jump shot. Not enough folks paid their dues to keep the group afloat, but FANS did have its, well, fans: Mike Lupica, in his 1996 book, Mad as Hell: How Sports Got Away From the Fansand How We Get It Back, championed its return. Lupica even pegged Mario Cuomo as a good guy for Nader to put in charge should the organization be re-formed.
McCarthy, however, got the gig. The 26-year-old Cleveland native, who has been working for Nader since he graduated from Kent State University, says that though he didn’t come to D.C. expecting to get involved in sports lobbying, his heart is indeed in his work. Everything he needs to know to get by in his new job, McCarthy says, he learned while rooting for his hometown’s home teams.
“Cleveland is one of the cities that’s always noted as a success story by people who want public money for stadiums, but it’s all a façade,” he says. “Saying that Jacobs Field and [Gund Arena, where the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers play] and the new Browns stadium have turned the city around is ridiculous. The school system is still horrible. The public works are still horrible. The only thing the money did was build downtown stadiums that look good on television. But there are many more pressing needs that the city ignored so those stadiums could be built. In a city with real problems, it’s not fair to the taxpayers to use that money to help out rich guys.”
But FansFirst!, McCarthy promises, won’t always be about stadiums and tax dollars. As soon as he gets his footing in the public-funds debate, McCarthy says, he’ll take on other high-profile anti-fans in the area.
“I’m not OK with everything that Daniel Snyder’s done, either,” he says. Dave McKenna