By David Roth
You are probably not appreciated enough at your work. I don't know you, probably, and so I don't know what you do or how well you do it, but it's likely that you are underappreciated in the doing of it. This is not your fault or anyone else at your work's fault so much as it is just the way it goes -- we do what we do in the silos in which we do it, and as such are generally too busy to notice the work being done by the person to the left, or the right, or in the mailroom or the C-suite or wherever. We don't necessarily all do our best, but we all do what we must, and trust others to do the same. What that sense of socially reinforced responsibility wrings out of us is, in a practical sense, the invisible hand that matters most in maintaining an economy and society that works. Some other invisible hands are perhaps at work much higher up, allocating or misallocating, exploiting inefficiencies or just exploiting full stop. But for most of us, this is the truth of it: We do more than we'd like, for less than we'd like, whatever we do and whatever we're paid, because we feel obligated to do so. Most of us, that is.
It may be different if you are the owner of a professional sports team. The same principle -- do your best, because other people and personal pride depend upon it -- should apply maybe more than usual here. After all, profits and losses aside, owning a sports team amounts to the stewardship of a civic institution; it's a public trusteeship, and the best and best-loved owners succeed simply by behaving in a way that acknowledges the significance of that responsibility. There are many ways to do this. The Rooney family does this with the Pittsburgh Steelers in one way; Mark Cuban does it with the Dallas Mavericks in a louder and spray-tannier way. Both suit their respective cities, and both serve those cities by doing their utmost to give those cities worthy teams.
They are exceptions to an increasingly bleak rule. While the only thing that all the people who own sports teams have in common is tremendous wealth, a survey of the sports scene suggests that the other thing owners should have in common -- a basic recognition of the civic significance of the teams they own -- is in eclipse or wholly absent, old or dying or dead. At any rate, there is a responsibility deficit here, and it is crushing.
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There is, in the wake of the lockouts and stare-downs and general air of aggrieved militancy of the last few years, something almost endearing about the cartoonish vanity case owners who remain. This should in no way imply that it would be nice to work for, say, Jerry Jones, a petro-wealthy Buddy Garrity type living what appears to be a very long -- and very expensive and disconcertingly Botox-ed but admirably industrious -- Texas Football Dad daydream. But his team is his toy, and he'll be got-danged if he's not going to play with it until it breaks. And while there's nothing much likable about the sports scene's curdled, bully-boy heirs -- bellowing, steak-faced Steinbrenner DEMANDING RESULTS, the words hissing tartly through some Grand Cru-purpled teeth; James Dolan, doing whatever the hell it is that James Dolan is ever doing and Daniel Snyder's flubby Napoleon routine and the rest -- recent years have shown us all that there are worse things than cartoonish louts with a yen for overpriced free agents.
Owning a sports team is a different type of job, judged by a different set of criteria. The only qualification for the position is that applicants must be mind-bendingly rich, and be willing to deal with a level of scrutiny that the rest of us -- the president of the United States and some governors and many reality television stars may be exempt, here -- will never receive. For their trouble, team owners enjoy the opportunity to participate in a miniature economy built to ensure that their teams will be profitable. Revenues are shared, salaries are capped, every gouge or extraction or arbitrary bit of rent-seeking is permitted -- personal seat licenses, $11 domestic drafts, tax advantages and spontaneous exemption from rules and laws and norms, outrageous subsidies, pick your outrage. There's a certain obvious irony in the way that the more radical and militant members of sports' ownership caste fashion themselves as Randian ubermenschen -- and they're all men, all of them -- while heroically milking and leveraging and generally living their Hobbesian ideals in a phony, un-free market that they have brazenly shaped to ensure their success. But this is satire too good and too lacerating to draw a laugh.
And it's not perfect, of course. You could own a NHL team in the Sun Belt. You could be the Wilpons, the grandiose Long Island sentimentalists who have turned the New York Mets into the House of Usher, then stuck it with an underwater mortgage. You could be the Maloofs, the feckless sun-baked heirs to a liquor fortune and destroyers of the Sacramento Kings, who may finally succeed in selling the team to out-of-town investors, as they've plainly meant to do for years. You would have to be, in other words, a craven, self-important fool. People will be mean to you on the Internet about it, naturally. You keep the money. Call it a wash, then.
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Owning a professional basketball team is not like owning a bunch of Longhorn Steakhouses, or a Kinko's franchise, or running an Etsy business selling whimsical pet-mittens. It is, in many ways, incalculably easier, but it is also and not coincidentally more appealing -- while the boom (or bubble) in television deals and management-favoring collective bargaining agreements and the rest have made it easier to turn a profit from earning a sports team, making money has not traditionally been the reason why rich people buy sports teams. It's an indulgence -- Slate's Matthew Yglesias aptly described it as a costly hobby -- but it's also more than that, or should be.
If a team belongs to its owner, strictly speaking, there is also the sense in which it belongs to the community in which it plays. It's not just that the community pays the bills by assenting to tax expenditures and tax breaks for team owners, or by buying tickets and t-shirts and parking spots and comically oversized foam fingers, although there is of course that. But a sports team in a vacuum is nothing much, really -- a bunch of buff dudes in matching clothes, with a shorter dude in a suit screaming at them about defense. Put that team in context, in front of a crowd of people who care, and it can be something else, and something inestimably greater. A team in context, which is the only way it can be a team in full, does not just entertain fans but it enriches a community, gives people something to talk and feel about together, provides a reason to be and believe together.
This is a lot of significance for a plaything, admittedly. But that is how it works, when it works. Beyond withholding their dollars and interest, fans have little means of holding team owners accountable for their unwillingness or inability to recognize how much their respective toys mean to so many. Because of the ways in which owners have tilted the sports marketplace in their favor, even that doesn't necessarily mean much. It's a raw deal, and rawer still for fans like Sacramento's, who have done and given a great deal to their team. Owners who exempt themselves from this bargain -- who take more than they grudgingly give, who deny or exploit the broader significance of their property -- deserve to be shamed, of course. But the really rotten and faith-shaking part is how little recourse fans have beyond that. A team -- or a nation of fans, or a nation, period -- depends not just on the work we do, but the civic faith that reinforces it. We all do our part in part because we trust everyone else to do theirs. It can't work, won't work any other way.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.