Dear Roger: I'm Your Canary

Wealthy people squabbling in front of recession-weary customers? Only in the NFL.

Behind me lies a unexceptional suburban household. My eldest daughter and son are immersed in video games, my youngest daughter and my wife are contemplating the relative merits of competing chefs on one of those cheap-to-produce reality shows that dominate the airwaves. I am in my office, a converted dining room in which can be found computer equipment, a router, some books, a middle-aged father, and an electric piano that hasn't worked since a six-year-old girl made an effort to "clean" it using chemicals it didn't like.

This home doesn't look like a battleground. But it is. It's a muddy trench in the middle of a Midwestern ground war, caught in the crossfire of forces it can't control. A data point on a statistical curve, hopefully telling educated men what is happening to the American dream.

Like most U.S. households, ours is wired and wireless. Through the wire pours news of financial bailouts and wars and foreclosures and $4 a gallon gasoline, and soon will pour news of higher food prices and politics and elections and thirty-second soundbites paid for by people we don't know.

I don't care about your politics and you don't care about mine, even if I thought I knew the answers. Which I don't. I can't tell you why the economy thrives at some times and suffers at others. But here we are: We all see the fluctuating numbers outside our local self-serve stations. We all know friends who can't find work, no matter how hard they try. We know that some of them have given up.

* * *

Before me lies a letter from Mike Holmgren and his Cleveland Browns. Unlike the letters arriving every day asking for charitable contributions and displaying dubious bargains, this communication is less a plea than a threat: renew your season tickets by May 20th, or we'll assume that you want to give up the ducats you've held for 12 years and which you paid $2,000 for the rights to buy back in 1999. It's very nicely written, but the message is clear: Pay up or else.

I've heard this before. It's an echo from 1999.

The year the Browns returned seems much more than twelve years ago. We were just four years removed from Art Modell pulling the Cleveland Browns out of the city that had supported them for fifty years. We were riding high on a technology bubble, convinced by pundits that we were entering an era where endless brown packages carrying sensibly-priced treasures would stream through our front door from eToys, and Webvan.

While the NASDAQ exploded, NFL owners moved aggressively, using questionable studies of local economic benefit and, when needed, veiled threats. And when, really, really needed, overt threats. Our city of Cleveland was used in many of them until the NFL finally ran out of time to use it as a bargaining chip.

Here in Cleveland, our taxes built a relatively sterile football stadium which has thus far escaped being tarnished with a corporate moniker, and which the Carmen Policy regime quickly cleared of rabble. Elsewhere, giant stadiums began to dot the landscape, funded by cities who felt they couldn't survive without an NFL franchise, plastered with names of corporations hoping to profit from their community's allegiances. Giant pirate ships, retractable roofs, and Fieldturf™ made their way into city after city. And more loges. And more club seats. And personal seat licenses.

Garish monuments to a reckless era when we thought there were no limits. Pricey baubles to lure in the elite, and well out of the range of the working stiffs who had supported pro football since its early days.

* * *

One of the things that continues to amaze me is how NFL owners failed to stop building monuments to themselves and their sport even after an economic downturn became obvious.

In Dallas, Jerry Jones' ego coaxed a monumental self-tribute out of the ground at a cost of $1.15 billion to himself and Texas taxpayers (who ponied up $325 million). The edifice was finally finished at three times the promised cost, and features the world's largest high definition screen, 18 works of art commissioned from contemporary artists, and represents the world's largest column-free indoor structure. It's a football field afflicted with a grotesque pituitary condition.

Season ticket holders can get preferred parking for Cowboys games for just $75. Per game. The Dallas Cowboys wrapped up their first season in their new palace early in 2010, a year when, for the first time ever, over one million American homes (one in forty-five) were taken from their occupants through foreclosure.

This is just one example among many, and many in Texas will point to the building's value as an all-purpose facility. But to me, it's a sign that something is wrong, somehow. It bespeaks an almost mind-boggling isolation of which I've written before, a bubble in that self-inflates around sports figures who either become obscenely rich or famous, creating an ignorance of the rules as they apply to others.

Or from current economic realities. Here on the ground, in the trenches, we see a different world.

But, wait, it gets worse.

We are now in the third month of an NFL lockout, where team owners are trying to extract concessions from players, after regretting their previous labor deal and, perhaps, self-inflicted wounds created by all those concrete monuments to themselves. They will never admit this, of course, happy to cry poor while keeping their financial ledgers closed up tight, free from prying eyes.

The Browns fans version of Christmas - free agency - failed to arrive in 2011.

Oblivious to dropping attendance, which they assign mostly to their own brilliance in televising the sport, NFL owners demand a larger piece of the already gigantic $9 billion game, ostensibly so that they can drive professional football to even greater financial heights. Both sides, players and owners, play a public relations game to try to win the support of the faceless mob that buys the tickets. Unable to speak to each other directly and arrange an equitable way to split their riches, they burn up the time of our courts.

In Cleveland, businesses dependent on the football-related income promised in all those studies look towards a grim year. But what's a hotel or a sportswear manufacturer or a travel agency in the big picture? Or the fans? They'll come back, they have no choice.


* * *

I don't idolize athletes, I'm not one of those guys who paints his face each Sunday. And no one wants to see me take my shirt off in sub-zero weather, least of all me.

I don't know why I love professional football so much, I but as I grow older, I'm probably starting to figure it out, and it's also a story about disconnection.

The reason I love football, I expect, is that it's a common denominator. I'm sort of a reserved guy, not someone who walks into a room and lights it up. I struggle at times to get to know people. But football is a universal connector when topics like politics, religion and the like are verboten. Football brings us together, allows us to high-five a stranger rather than fear them.

We retreat to our nests every night, cloistered inside, lit up by video screens, but on every Sunday in the fall, 80,000 of us can come together. I can't overstate how important this to me, and to many of us. I love my community and what my team means to it. It was important enough to me that it changed the course of my career, and my life.

I wouldn't call myself a casual fan of pro football, like I am with some other sports. I don't know the Xs and Os like I wish I did, but if you say the name "Enoch DeMar", I can tell you what position he played, who signed him, and what school he went to.

My wife and I could probably afford to give the Browns organization that money they want, if we had to, but it wouldn't be easy. My little two-income family has to try to get two kids through college and allow our youngest the opportunity to participate in activities she loves. It costs me $100 to drive back and forth to work each week. We're buying less, but the grocery bills keep going up.

* * *

Dear Mr. Goodell,

I may not be the hardest of hard-core football fans, but I'm up there, and I don't like what I see. I'm sure that common sense, or economic necessity, will prevail and we'll see football again this year. And the media will act like nothing ever happened, and many fans will return. But I can't in good conscience give you money that could be better used by my family for other things. I love your product, and the community which supports it, but not what your business has become.

If you should be doing anything this year, it's figuring how to make do with less, reducing costs to fans, giving them greater value in exchange for the increased pain they bear in supporting your expensive product. What you should not be doing is squabbling over what is, to many of us, already an obscene amount of treasure.

This is my way of saying that there will be four more seats available for someone else in Cleveland Browns Stadium this year. I will not be writing you a check. I'll have to give up that dream of "owning" those seats and passing them down to my son.

Sir, consider me the canary in your gold mine, an early-warning sign as to whether the air has become too toxic. I've been here every day for decades, watching attentively from my cage.

But, today, I'm gone.

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