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courtesy theatlantic.com
courtesy theatlantic.com

When the Seattle Mariners signed Robinson Cano to a 10 year, $240 million contract, I scratched my head. Weren’t the Mariners one of the “poorer” teams in Major League Baseball? Yet Cano, who was previously an all-star second baseman for the Yankees, will receive the 4th highest contract in sports history.

Cano, while an excellent player, is hardly alone in his athletic affluence. There have been a litany of free-agent signings that have offered egregious amounts of money to many players across all sports (my team, the Philadelphia Phillies, spent about $2.125 million per win last year). Heck, even the guys who sign league minimum contracts make roughly $500,000. I often scratch my head over these deals. Why? So many sports teams and their owners cry poverty and threaten to leave their respective cities without public financial support to build brand-new, state-of-the-art, exquisite stadiums that will house their team for the next 15-20 years. Rinse. repeat.

And then it hit me like an epiphany: taxpayers – and more so politicians – are willing to support expensive sports teams, their owners, and their wealthy players — often at the expense of public services such as education.

Seattle, Robinson Cano’s new home, is exemplary of this. In 2012, the Seattle city council asked its teachers to¬†take a 2-day furlough to shave 2% from their salaries. The schools also threatened to cut upwards of 170+ positions until the contract was settle last week. And while the 2-year contract was far from contemptible (the teachers received a 3% raise over the next two years), much of it was making up for ground lost in the previous cuts while trying to promote a healthy financial climate to keep in retain its teachers (articles have suggested that teacher retention is the most pressing issue facing the city’s education system, but I could not find any data except that a teacher’s salary, at $53,000, is equivalent to what an average Seattleite earns annually). In addition, the state cut funding to college tuition by 37.5% (note: to be fair, that same budget put more money towards their school districts).

On the other hand, Seattle has been busy subsidizing its sports teams’ venues. When the Mariners, the city’s baseball team, needed a new stadium in 1995, the politicians were quick to write a $340 million check for Safeco Field, covering roughly 85% of the $400 million project. CenturyLink Field, which houses the Seahawks football team, was supported by $300 million in public funds (or 66% of the costs). In an attempt to lure back a basketball team (the Seattle Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 after city officials balked at footing the bill for renovations), a new hockey and basketball arena has been approved at an additional cost of $450 million dollars, with tax funds covering $200 million in addition to necessary transportation upgrades that have yet to be determined.

And yet, Seattle is not alone. Major cities across the United States have been increasingly expected to pay for new stadiums lest their hometown teams pull a “Sonic split” and move to a different city. Especially during the 1990’s and 2000’s, cities have been paying for atrociously expensive stadiums at a record level (this infographic tells a great detail of the splurge). From the mid-90’s, when builders broke ground for Safeco Field, until today, the public has shelled out $16,860,000,000 (yes, that’s billions) for public sports arenas while their owners and players are routine millionaires.

How much do players make, by the way? I’ve compiled the amount of professional athletes in the 4 major sports (NHL hockey, MLB baseball, NFL football, and NBA basketball) and found that there are roughly 3,550 employees of those leagues. In the 2012-13 seasons, they made $13.635 billion, or an average of $3.8 million.

In comparison, my native Pennsylvania employs 141,000 teachers who make 7.304 billion, or just over $50,000 per year (that’s $0.050 million, for those of you keeping score). I understand that it’s more difficult to find a great hitting and defensive second baseman than it is a 7th grade history teacher, but how much more difficult?

How much did sports owners make in that same time? We don’t know; as regulated monopolies, there is no need for transparency. In the NFL, though, it’s hardly a risky venture – only the Detroit Lions were at a financial loss last year. The Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots increased their worth 10%, and both teams are valued at a combined $4 billion. To add, Forbes estimates the NFL will soon increase its revenue from $9 billion to $25 billion per year.

While the figures are excessive, I don’t have a problem with players and owners making a hefty chunk of change. What I do have a problem with is that it seems to be at the expense of many other public services, like police protection, fire services, public housing, and, of course, education.

It’s become a downright collusion between sports owners and politicians, just so they can share a photo-op plunging the first shovel spade into the ground.

The average NFL stadium built between 1997 and the San Francisco 49ers stadium that will be completed in 2015 costs roughly $525 million, with 56% of that paid by the public. Those cities and franchise owners would argue that means justify the ends, with jobs and disposable income arriving immediately in their city’s now-upgraded neighborhood. Yet most pro-business firms, like the CATO Institute, disagree and find the taxpayer expense to be a complete waste of money netting no return on investment. In fact, Bloomberg estimates that the Dallas / Arlington battle to house the new, monolithic 80,000 seat stadium will cost the two cities a combined $4 billion in lost revenue over the life of just this stadium’s longevity.

While the intent of this article isn’t to debate the market value of a professional athlete or a sports team owner, it should highlight the disparity between them and the common citizen. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, the average citizen is more incensed by what teachers earn than professional sports. Here’s just a hypothetical generalization:

Robinson Cano signed a $240 million contract? “Oh wow!” and “He’s a heckuva second baseman.”

A teacher receives a 3% pay raise and makes $51,500 instead of $50,000? “That’s ridiculous!” and “We’re going to take it out on them by lighting up the local newspaper’s online comment section!”

In fact, while education has become a lightning rod welcoming its political detractors, supporting (or not sufficiently supporting) teams with public funds is simultaneously a third rail – meaning no local politician will touch it because they don’t want to be the elected official that loses the Sonics – and a white elephant – something that costs more to keep than it does to lose. Consequently, many sports’ teams owners are taking advantage of that.

The conclusion I’ve reached involves two items. First, we must note the obvious: that poverty-stricken, city schools are the ones struggling the most in this nation. Second, is that these cities that are so readily willing to pay for their taxpayer-supported stadiums are the cities that are struggling the most with their children’s education, and, on the contrary to constructing new schools, hiring more teachers, and paying them more to work with tougher students, are willing to fast on education cuts.

According to the Council of Great City Schools, there are roughly 433,000 teachers servicing 6.9 million urban students. If the $840 million spent by the public in an average year on stadiums were instead spent on these students, that would be an increase in funding by $120 per child’s education. If it were spent on giving these urban-based teachers the raises they sorely deserve, each teacher would bring home $2,000 more. We could hire 17,000 new teachers. There are countless amounts of return of investment by placing funds directly into education. In fact, the return on investment for education helping poverty-stricken students is near limitless (many are noted here by The Global Partnership for Education), including an educated working class, filling high-tech jobs, and urban progress.

Spending $840 million on 3 brand-new stadiums and doling out $240 million for a second baseman suddenly seems like its return on investments is a bit less substantial.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Mr. Jake Miller is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, a 2017 NEA Global...

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