Late last year, finally, after years of wrangling, the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to an affordable housing proposal in their new arena development plan in an old segregated black neighborhood, the Lower Hill District. Much of Lower Hill was razed in the 1950s and ’60s for what was known as the Igloo, an earlier Penguins arena. What survived was left to plummet into impoverishment.
So this was the least the Penguins could do. As author and urban designer Rami el Samahy lamented to CityLab, “What reparations do you make as a city to a population and a culture that you skewered?”
It was a reminder of the responsibility that billion-dollar pro sports have to us for all we do for it. Abandoning our homes. Forking over funding. And it turned ever more pointed as the novel coronavirus epidemic metastasized into our midst.
For as much as sports owners such as the Lerner family, which owns the Washington Nationals, and Ted Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, and others like them across the country are due applause for pledging to pay hourly and part-time workers who suddenly can’t work because of postponed and canceled sports events, that’s their responsibility. It is what owners ought to do. They’re obliged.
“The overarching ethical duty is the same for these CEOs/Owners as it is for restaurants, retail, etc., which is, if you have the capacity to take care of your own, do so to the greatest extent of your ability,” Brendan Parent, a lawyer and ethicist who is director of New York University’s Sports and Society program, said in an email. “The difference is, mega sports entities have greater capacity in light of tax breaks and other indicators of long term viability despite the current economic collapse.”
The NFL, for example, built 21 new stadiums and heavily renovated three more between the late 1990s and 2017 with the aid of at least $6.7 billion in public money. Some of those stadiums are among the more than 30 pro facilities built since 2000 with tax-exempt bonds worth more than $3 billion in federal taxpayer dollars.
“Privately owned sport fully depends on media, spectators, attendees,” Hans Westerbeek, who studies international sports business at Victoria University in Australia, said in an email. “It is in their interest to keep stadiums and their staff alive. Without it, they cannot play nor make money for the owners, and indeed, so much community money is in it already. So just like banks extending payment terms or postponing interest payments - not charity.”
Building pro sports infrastructure long ago became a profitable venture funded heavily by public collections. Government, which we pay for, should, of course, come to our rescue in the hurricane of this deadly rolling coronavirus that is knocking over one industry after another and felling lives. But pro sports should be no less absolved.
“Here in the [United Kingdom] . . . numerous high-profile sport brands have announced various kinds of support, mainly for their local communities - Gary Neville [a former Manchester United player] and his football hotel has opened its doors to health workers. Manchester City has done something similar. Chelsea, Liverpool, Ipswich Town and even Roma FC in Italy, too,” Aaron Smith, dean at the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University London said in an email. “Even [Formula One] teams are reported to be using their engineering skills to manufacture ventilators. It is clear that these brands fully understand the deep and reciprocal relationship they hold with their communities and fans.”
Corporate social responsibility was born in the 1950s. Sports corporate social responsibility is in its infancy. It is often confused with charity, like starting a benevolent arm or having a team visit a children’s hospital. Where did the NFL get its first vice president of social responsibility? Promoted from the vice presidency of community relations and philanthropy as a reactive measure after the Ray Rice domestic violence case.
But social responsibility for machines that profit so much off the public must be more invasive than that. Humanitarian chef José Andrés watched the Superdome tragedy unfold after Hurricane Katrina. That inspired him to round up an army of cooks to parachute into Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017. There, they commandeered a sports arena to feed the hungry.
“Everybody thinks an arena is where an NBA team plays. No, no, it’s a lie,” he told NPR. “An arena is a gigantic restaurant that happens [to have] NBA players for entertainment. So every arena potentially is a restaurant. It takes only a few hours to activate . . . the arena in case of an emergency.
“I got in an arena [in Puerto Rico] to use as a kitchen, to use as a place to gather all the food that was being donated, all the food we were buying. And there we created a crazy dream. For a few weeks, I think it became one of the biggest restaurants in the world.”
The genesis of what happened in Pittsburgh was a Community Benefits Agreement, a new sort of sports CBA that centers on respecting those impacted by real estate development, particularly in urban environments where such projects translate into displacement and gentrification. They were born around the turn-of-millennium plan to build Staples Center in Los Angeles. The new Yankee Stadium was held to one. The Pittsburgh contract included promises to irrigate the Lower Hill’s food desert as well as hire Lower Hill workers at established wages.
Once we survive this shutdown of society and sport by a tragedy that no one can escape, the CBA that bound Pittsburgh should become commonplace in every publicly funded pro sports development. And it should be extended to protect workers, just as every industry right now needs extended federal unemployment insurance for its labor force.
We give too much to pro sports to ever wonder if they might return anything less.