Point Austin: The Sporting Scene
It's just a Hail Mary pass from Memorial Stadium to Formula One
So in fashion terms, I guess it's just as well that on Tuesday, the remaining members of the Big 12 Minus 2 announced they have come to a mutual understanding and will be keeping the athletic conference together for the present, rather than having a half-dozen members, led by the mighty Longhorns, bolt westward in a new gold rush. "This is a long-term, unequivocal commitment," UT-Austin President Bill Powers said in a press conference. "We believe this decision is based in the best interest of our student-athletes, coaches, and university constituencies. We are pleased to continue the traditions we have developed with our partners in the Big 12."
A bit later, "long-term" became, from Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds, "five years, 10 years" – so we'll soon see just how unequivocal a deal will remain among these notorious wheeler-dealers. The collective tempers and wanderlust were reportedly soothed by the prospect of splitting the exit fees of Colorado (already headed to the Pac-10) and Nebraska (Big 10 Plus 2), as well as pending television contracts that would also allow the schools their own networks – All-Longhorn or All-Aggie or All-Sooner, all the time. According to this week's mostly unsourced and unreliable reports, what with exit fees and prospective TV deals, UT – with an athletic budget already at $130 million – stands to collect an additional $20 million to $25 million a year, which it will no doubt use to help rehire all those laid-off lecturers in Spanish and Italian.
What could be better?
Do As We Say
Despite my sardonic sniping, as a reasonably rabid sports fan – at the moment simultaneously and fruitlessly tracking the NBA finals, the White Sox's annually frittering hopes, and the World Cup – I can't claim much ideological purity as an independent commentator on the business of sports. And that's what we're talking about: business – despite all the reflexive genuflection to public education and "student-athletes," many of whom, now with additional reason, are undoubtedly wondering, "What's in it for me?"
University athletics is state capitalism on a grand scale, as the athletes gamble their bodies and skilled labor (at cost) and the public education system provides state-sponsored minor leagues to massive private-profit enterprises – both the professional leagues and the broadcasting networks that massively underwrite them all. It is what it is – I understand that neither the NFL nor ESPN is about to start assuming the considerable public investments necessary for sustaining their development league, aka the NCAA. What's tiresome and deceptive is the endless hypocritical rhetoric and one-sided enforcement of the ennobling virtues of "amateur athletics." Coaches, administrators, and universities aggressively seek the highest bidders – but let a "student-athlete" do the same, and all hell breaks loose: disqualification, public humiliation, economic sanctions.
Can anybody here say "monopoly"?
Off to the Races
Which brings me, by devious indirection, to the city of Austin's latest flirtation with big-time international sports, the proposed Formula One racetrack. Although born and bred a Hoosier, I've never developed any particular affection for the relentless droning of automobile engines, next to which the bleating of a million vuvuzelas sounds like the music of the spheres. But I don't begrudge other folks their entertainments, and I find the early environmental objections to the project unpersuasive (they'll burn a lot of gas, like the rest of Texas) and the "cultural" ones – when "not Austin culture" means "things I don't like to do" – laughable.
That said, it's not at all clear that we're not about to buy a pig in a poke, a suspicion made more tangible by the official refusal to release much of any information concerning either the initial negotiations (which reportedly took place through the offices of state Comptroller Susan Combs and state Sen. Kirk Watson, and perhaps the governor) or whatever concrete plans must exist to actually get the thing done. We'll be given the usual excuses for secrecy: proprietary information and protection against unfair competition, when the real issue (once again) is investing public dollars and infrastructure in what amounts to a private (and even foreign) monopoly.
We're already hearing the somewhat credible argument that the public investment will be returned manifold in city and state taxes. Yet as the man said to Madoff, if it's such a great deal, why are the details secret? Just like "amateur athletics," the weasel words "free enterprise" are supposed to explain and defend everything, most specifically when the public is assuming the external and indirect costs for a massive profit that will be overwhelmingly privatized.
Beyond those introductory questions, it's worth asking whether Austin is increasingly in danger of creating a tourism-based economy, with all the cyclical risks of that strategy and, more dangerously, the two-tiered class structure that comes with it. Will we find ourselves depending for our incomes on visiting businessmen and tourists, while expanding a growing underclass of service labor – underpaid, undereducated, and without the resources for a sustainable quality of life, or even affordable housing? That debilitating trend would of course put even more strain on the same public resources supposedly funded by the sales taxes dropping from the tables of the race-car, music, and football tourists.
I hope somebody with a hand in all these secret negotiations is asking at least some of these questions, although in my experience, when economic boosterism is the boardroom subject, such homeboy impertinence is considered very bad form. If that's the case here, we should expect to hear a whole lot about long-term and unequivocal commitments and very little about who gets left holding the bag when the deal goes down.