Government should get into sports

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This week, the endless hunt for a Los Angeles football team took massive leaps towards a conclusion. The San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders released joint plans for a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles. E. Stan Kroenke, owner of the St. Louis Rams, got approval from city council to build a stadium on a plot of land he bought in Inglewood, California.

All three teams are moving for the same reason. They feel their current host cities are not providing enough monetary support for badly needed stadium upgrades. Now, all three host cities are scrambling to save their football franchises from Los Angeles, lest they hear about it in the ballot box. Other, more urgent bills are being shut down as cash-strapped cities scrape together the pennies needed to appease the billionaire team owners.

While there is certainly public value to professional sports, it is insane for them to be able to pull such power plays with cities. It's not like any major leagues would crumble without public help. The money funneled from the government into stadiums is never returned; it simply goes into the pockets of people who were never struggling for profit in the first place.

Some people think this is fair because it is a democratic way of distributing sports franchises. If people vote against politicians who lose teams, the people clearly wanted their team more than they cared about the sacrificed budget items. This argument is badly flawed. The government has many obligations when it comes to financial expenditures on its citizens. Unemployment benefits and public utility subsidies fall under this category; their most efficient use for a capital-seeking business is not to offer them to everyone affordably, but this is disastrous for a functioning society.

Professional sports do not fall under this category. Games happen in discrete chunks, and television, the Internet, and radio prevent meaningful restriction of access. No one suffers because they're not wearing their Sam Bradford jersey. Even the Rams should probably stop letting the quarterback wear his before his knee finally just disintegrates. The government has higher order financial obligations that are necessary for the maintenance of healthy society and that cannot be met by private interests.

In contrast, the NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry that can build its own stadiums with plenty of room to spare. The government is funneling taxpayer dollars into the pockets of billionaires. It should never be acceptable for citizens to use votes to direct public money to something that is not a public good. In this case, those who badly need legitimate public goods are being overridden by those who see their need as trivial; this is the definition of the tyranny of the majority.

Regulation of this situation is difficult and probably impossible at the local level. As demonstrated by the current predicament in Los Angeles, cities would start legislating themselves out of professional leagues. A federal department of professional sports, meanwhile, would benefit the public welfare enough to be well worth the trouble. The specialized government employees of a federal department would allow for the thorough investigation of kickbacks and other corruption without hijacking Congress for long periods of investigation.

Even when relocation is not a hot-button issue, professional sports exist in a weird economic space that requires regulation. Having single leagues concentrates talent and creates both a better product for the consumer and more money for the producer. However, the leagues' immunity to anti-trust law allows them to go about their business incompetently with impunity.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would be forced to leave any Fortune 500 company solely for his handling of the Ray Rice incident, let alone for his lack of response to issues with concussions in the NFL. However, he's a convenient scapegoat for NFL owners and fans who have nowhere else to get their football, so Goodell keeps his job. A department of professional sports could carry out legislation designed to put some reasonable bounds on his and other commissioners' actions.

By focusing on these efforts, a federal department of professional sports could be an effective government solution to the pilfering of public pockets without consistent input from sectors of the government that simply have more important issues to tackle.