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Talk about absentee ownership.

When George Soros’ name comes up, it’s likely during some highfalutin discussion on high finance or the democratization of Eastern Europe or the restructuring of our nation’s drug policy, all arenas in which he’s a key player. Soros also fills a big role on the D.C. sporting scene, but it’s one that—by his design—is almost never discussed.

Soros is the principal investor in D.C. United, defending champs of Major League Soccer, whose season kicks off this week. Soros gets his share of ink, but not for being a team owner. In an age where the sports world’s money men routinely fight with their players for the spotlight—is anybody not sick of Peter Angelos?—Soros has chosen to keep his athletic ownership essentially unknown.

“His” team will receive its championship rings during a ceremony at the home opener on April 5, but the Hungarian-born billionaire won’t be there to hand out the Tiffany-designed baubles to “his” players or join in the celebration. In fact, if form holds, Soros’ cheeks won’t be filling a seat at too many other United games this year, either.

“I don’t know that George Soros made it to any of our games last year,” admits D.C. United spokesman Beau Wright. In addition to not attending his team’s games, Soros specifically declined to provide a photo for United’s media guide.

United fans, players, and staffers shouldn’t feel especially neglected by Soros. Even the guy’s own partners in the limited liability corporation that controls the championship team don’t have a relationship with him.

“I went to every United game last year, and I never saw Mr. Soros there,” says Neil Tyra, a Montgomery County resident and the team’s largest local investor. “I’ve still never met him. I’d like to meet him.”

In Soros’ defense, there are some good excuses for his chronic truancy and apparent neglect of his championship squad.

First, he doesn’t live in the Washington area—New York is his home now. And even if he did reside locally, making money and, more notably, giving it away take up most of Soros’ time these days. After leaving Hungary in 1947, Soros first became fabulously wealthy trading currency, and then became fabulously wealthier via mutual-fund management. His firm, Soros Fund Management, oversees the Quantum Fund NV, which it claims has turned in “the best performance of any investment fund in the world” over the past 26 years.

All that moneymaking might have Soros a little embarrassed. In a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story, he railed against the capitalist system he has manipulated so successfully. Perhaps that explains why he has chosen to keep his involvement in a venture-capitalist endeavor like MLS so confidential. His exact contribution to United’s war chest is not a matter of public record, but it is said to be somewhere between $4.5 million and $9 million, so the entry for “MLS Soccer Team” doesn’t rate too much space in his investment portfolio. “It’s lunch money to the guy,” says one United official.

Then there’s the giving it away part. Soros was on record as conferring nearly $100 million on charitable organizations in 1996, which got him second place on the Slate 60, the online pub’s inaugural list of the biggest benefactors in the U.S. (He would have taken the top prize had there been a list for 1995, when Soros gave away $350 million.) Half of Soros’ 1996 donations went toward helping illegal aliens gain U.S. citizenship. The rest was split between projects aimed at spreading democracy in the former Soviet Union and grants to groups pushing for an overhaul of our government’s drug policy.

Some ripples of Soros’ war against the drug war have been felt locally.

“We certainly like George Soros here,” laughed Allen St. Pierre, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Soros’ dollars paid for the new computer system at NORML’s D.C. headquarters. He has spent much more money funding out-of-town efforts, but his attempt to keep that financing low-key ended when enemies smoked out his pro-pot position.

After it was learned that he’d backed the ballot initiatives in Arizona and California to allow the medical use of marijuana, proponents of the status quo started aiming free kicks in his direction. Joseph Califano, the press-savvy Health and Human Services Secretary under President Carter who is now a big anti-drug crusader, tagged Soros “the Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization” and accused him of “bamboozling” the voting public.

Soros answered Califano’s arcane potshots in a thoughtful op-ed that ran in the Washington Post last month. He denied having any hand in shaping the state campaigns that led to the ballot initiatives but admitted he was proud to have kicked in $1 million to the pro-pot crusaders who drew up the California and Arizona petitions, and urged hemp activists in other jurisdictions to rise up. “I shall be happy to support (with after-tax dollars) some of these efforts,” Soros pledged.

Those United players who are aware of Soros’ doobie-ous leanings are probably most eager for him to get more involved in running the team. Just imagine, with the owner’s supportive stand on the medical use of marijuana, every guy with a complaint from shin splints to jock itch would try coaxing team doctors into prescribing spliffs and bong hits; in no time at all United’s training room would smell like Bob Marley’s tour bus.

Will Soros take a greater interest in the United in ’97? Only he knows, and he ain’t sayin’. Through a spokesman, Soros declined to be interviewed for this story.

—Dave McKenna