The King of Sports
By Gregg Easterbrook
Thomas Dunne Books
354 pages, $24.99.
By Dan Herbeck
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
No one will ever mistake Gregg Easterbrook for Hall of Fame football stars Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith or even the Buffalo Bills’ Kiko Alonso.
Easterbrook is a 60-year-old writer who grew up in Kenmore, played junior varsity football for Kenmore West High School, and still roots for the Bills. He is a scholarly and astute football columnist, not a brawny linebacker or lineman.
But sit this scribe down at his keyboard, and he delivers hits more devastating than the most ferocious, head-hunting linebacker.
Easterbrook does it again, again and again in “The King of Sports,” a startling and disturbing new book that takes aim at hypocrisy in the National Football League and big money college football.
Easterbrook is no football hater. He writes “Tuesday Morning Quarterback,” a funny and insightful column for ESPN’s website that some fans consider the best football writing anywhere. He loves the game.
What Easterbrook doesn’t love are phonies, egomaniacs, liars and greedy people who put the quest to make money above all other goals, regardless of who gets hurt.
And unfortunately, according to Easterbrook, there are plenty of those people in the hierarchies of the NFL and major college football.
“The game offers many pluses,” Easterbrook writes. “Football teaches young people self-discipline and teamwork, helps promote colleges and universities, can set positive examples for society ... And football is fantastically entertaining.”
But those positives must be weighed against “many negatives,” Easterbrook writes.
“They include concussions and other kinds of injuries, which occur more commonly to youth and high school players than to well-off professionals; public subsidies for NFL stadiums converted into private profit; young men who spend four or five years at major universities generating revenue but receiving no education; abuse of painkillers and other drugs.
“An unseen aspect of football is troubling, too. For every one young athlete who becomes a celebrated star, perhaps a hundred gain nothing, being used up and tossed aside.”
In Easterbrook’s view, football has such a huge impact on American life that it should be closely examined, in hopes that problems can be exposed and corrected before they kill the game.
Just how big is that impact? How popular is football?
Perhaps no better illustration could be given than the one Easterbrook offers on the second page of this book. He reports that the most watched television broadcast in American history was the 2012 Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots.
The next 19 most popular broadcasts in American history? All of them were Super Bowl games.
There’s pretty much an outrage on every page, but here are just a few of Easterbrook’s most shocking allegations and observations:
• Although the NFL has annual revenues of about $10 billion, the league claims to be a not-for-profit corporation in order to evade taxes. And the federal government allows it.
• Taxpayers in Washington state paid about $370 million to build a stadium for the Seattle Seahawks NFL team. The team pays about $1 million a year in rent to play their 10 games there. For those 10 games, including two preseason games, the team realizes about $100 million in revenue.
Do the Seahawks really need all that help from taxpayers? Their owner is former Microsoft executive Paul Allen, who was ranked last year by Forbes magazine as the 48th wealthiest person in the world. His net worth was estimated at $14.5 billion.
• The New Orleans Saints’ billionaire owner, Tom Benson, has “raised periodic alarms” about moving his team to another city. In 2001, state legislators voted to give Benson an annual “inducement payment” of $8.5 million to keep the team in New Orleans. Even after receiving that payment, and even after New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Benson again threatened to move. Louisiana’s governor “mollified” Benson by agreeing to spend $5 million in state funds to lease vacant office space from Benson.
Benson’s team plays in a domed stadium that taxpayers paid $580 million to build and another $335 million to renovate after the 2005 hurricane.
• While the NFL maintains “not-for-profit” status, its commissioner, Roger Goodell made a $29.5 million salary in 2011, according to public records cited by Easterbrook. The year before that, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein made $12.2 million working for the “not-for-profit.”
Goodell agreed to an interview for the book, Easterbrook writes, but the commissioner canceled it when he learned that he would be asked about the NFL’s tax exemptions.
“Perhaps Roger Goodell would say in his own defense that since the NFL’s owners are pigs at the trough, he might as well get the largest share he can,” Easterbrook chides.
• ”Roaring rivers” of taxpayer money flow through big college football. One of many examples he cites is the $5.6 million contract that the highly successful Nick Saban received last year for coaching the University of Alabama. Taxpayers also pay for Saban’s health care, country club membership and use of a private jet.
“A month after the Saban deal was finalized, the Alabama legislature cut $150 million from the state’s budget for public schools and universities,” Easterbrook reports.
• “In 2011, the Fiesta Bowl, held annually in Arizona, fired CEO John Junker – to call the manager of a single football game a CEO is absurd glorification – after it was revealed he was paying himself $600,000 a year, plus using Fiesta Bowl funds to cover his country club membership, while charging a $33,000 birthday party for himself to his expense account,” Easterbrook writes. “Junker also put on his expense account a $1,200 evening at a lap dance club, calling this a ‘security site planning’ meeting.”
After his firing, Junker pleaded guilty to a federal crime, and six other Fiesta Bowl officials pleaded guilty to state or federal crimes. The current CEO of the annual football game makes $455,000 a year. The Fiesta Bowl remains tax-exempt.
All the obscene stories about money and football cited by Easterbrook are far too numerous to fit into this review, but for some readers, his stories about players whose lives were destroyed by injuries or painkiller drugs will be even more upsetting.
He cites dozens of such stories, one more disturbing than the other. One that sticks in my mind is the tale of linebacker Keith McCants, a college star who got a $4.3 million bonus to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1990.
McCants was a decent NFL performer, but not a star. McCants felt “intense pressure” to become a star. He broke his clavicle in a September 1992 game against Detroit. McCants took a painkilling shot and finished out the game, which his team won.
Determined to continue playing through the season, McCants became addicted to painkillers and also began using cocaine.
“No coach ever told me I was required to take narcotics,” he told Easterbrook. “What they told me was that if I did not play, I would be waived. Then, ten minutes later, the trainer came around and offered painkillers. You figure it out.” After suffering several serious injuries, McCants was out of pro football by 1995. He left the NFL with orthopedic problems and drug addictions.
Adrift after football, he was arrested and convicted on drug counts three times. By 2012, at age 44, he was obese, flat broke, walking with a cane and in and out of halfway houses. “I made bad choices, and I blame myself for my bad choices,” McCants said. “But I thought I joined an organization, the NFL, that would take care of its own. Turns out the minute you can’t perform anymore, the NFL abandons you … They treat us like horses. When one breaks down, just bring in another animal.”
Easterbrook puts it another way: “When a football player can no longer generate entertainment, he no longer exists.”
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author, with Lou Michel, of “American Terrorist.”