One can only hope that the loss of the Memphis Grizzlies in the seventh and final game of their NBA playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder spells the end of the latest round of touting sport as an antidote to the suffering inflicted by natural disaster. After the Grizzlies’ stunning upset over the first-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, the media translated the team’s unexpected postseason success into an allegory for Memphis residents’ ability to bounce back in the face of recent floods that have forced hundreds out of their homes and into shelters. While such rhetoric may seem harmless, celebrating professional sport as a sort of symbolic glue for cities ravaged by natural disaster (or any other social tragedy for that matter) gives people the wrong idea. In light of the fact that pro franchises like the Memphis Grizzlies invariably leech public resources in order to line the pockets of ownership, the time has come to abandon the argument—one forwarded by commentators on both the left and right—that successful sports teams function as a public good in times of crisis.
According to the Washington Post, the Grizzlies’ “surprising success has been the perfect pick-me-up for the city” in the midst of the floods. Unfortunately, the paper fails to mention that in addition to providing this so-called “pick-me-up,” the Grizzlies have siphoned off $250 million in public bonds for the construction of their state-of-the-art arena, which, according to journalist Neil DeMause, has had a woeful “economic impact” within Memphis despite ownership’s claims to the contrary. As DeMause explains, the city and county tax receipts from the arena amount to $5.3 million a year, “or less than a third of the annual cost of paying off the $250 million in construction debt.” He also rightly points out that there is “no discussion of the opportunity cost of missing out on what else could have been done with $250 million in public bonds,” and that “the city would have been better off selling bonds to hire more schoolteachers.” In a city where the child poverty rate is twice the national average, worshiping the community-building power of a sports franchise that has effectively crowded out spending on much needed social programs qualifies as nothing less than absurd.
Even commentators who understand this contradiction have set it aside to celebrate the kinship between Memphis’s “blue collar” character and the “gritty” resolve showed by the Grizzlies on the hardwood. After acknowledging that the Grizzlies’ success won’t cure the city of entrenched unemployment or a 67 percent high school graduation rate, ESPN.com columnist LZ Granderson giddily suggests a likeness between the “resilience” of Memphis residents and the performance of “rugged [Grizzly] players like Zach Randolph.” He believes that “the physical play the team shows on the floor is indicative of the spirit of Memphis, and something that the people in the area can relate to.”
The romanticism of commentators like Granderson papers over the fact that the Grizzlies do not represent the interests of working families. The fact that the average price for seats to a Grizzlies home playoff game stood at well above $100 serves as a sufficient reminder that, in this day and age, professional sports cater to the desire for conspicuous consumption among a new urban elite rather than provide affordable entertainment to those seeking refuge from thankless low-wage work. If journalists want to dole out kudos for community-building in Memphis in recent weeks, they should ditch the odes to the Grizzlies and pay more attention to the work of grassroots organizations like the Tennessee Justice Center and Tennessee Citizen Action. The recent coalition building efforts of these groups resulted in the commitment of governor Bill Haslem to reduce proposed state budget cuts to health care and education.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this all before. When the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010 commentators reveled in how the team embodied the city’s “resiliency” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps, but the Saints have done little to facilitate genuine economic or social recovery in New Orleans, and the story will be no different in Memphis, no matter how many NBA titles the team brings home. With this in mind, let’s bench the idea that sports teams somehow empower the communities that they exploit.