A version of this story originally appeared in Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron.
It’s been almost six months since Lindsey found our little apartment buried in the Craigslist ads. We met the real estate agent, an absurdly pregnant woman named Kim, who stood politely near the door while the two of us paced the room, starstruck and stupid, imagining that with a signature and a check this could be the start of something special.
“Whoa, look at that!” I said, spotting a blue-and-yellow Rams snapback in the tree outside our window. It had the canary-yellow accents of the team’s uniforms before 2000; who knows how long it’d been up in the branches.
“That’s so weird! I’m from St. Louis,” I explained to Kim.
It felt like a good omen (we liked the place, too — don’t worry), and we signed a lease later that morning. Now the sight of that hat inspires a different sort of feeling.
People in St. Louis have known for some years that Rams owner Stan Kroenke had his sights set on moving the team to L.A. What’s harder to explain is how uniquely uncomfortable the whole situation was, for years, with Kroenke maintaining a stiff poker face with the city and media on whether or not he’d take the team out West. Even after he bought a chunk of real estate there in 2014.
To the casual observer, there was little doubt as to Kroenke’s grand designs. Still, that didn’t make it feel like any less a slap in the face when the billionaire owner shaded St. Louis as a lagging two-sport town in his formal application to move. After months of politicking to generate a stadium proposal that could’ve potentially bankrupted the city, just to keep the team in town, it was insult to injury and vice-versa and back again. The responses were bitter and swift, ranging from the formal to the Fuck You to boxes of cow shit.
Thankfully, I experienced most of the drama at a distance. Beyond the halcyon days of the Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams have sucked for most of my adult life. (Besides, I was raised a Packers fan anyway … long story.) Still, it pisses me off to think of the millions of dollars my hometown had hemorrhaged on that team, and the taxes my parents and friends must now pay to write off the remaining $100 million in bonds for a stadium that will now likely sit empty.
No one believed it would come to such a grim conclusion, of course, but the cohort of local politicians and billionaires who conspired to bring the team to St. Louis were never really looking much further than next quarter’s projections in the first place. No pun intended.
At the same time, I’ve experienced this little drama at a not-so-cavernous distance. After all, I live in San Francisco, a city not exactly immune to its own spate of football woes.
It being the 50th incarnation of our country’s most fabled sports holiday, a few weeks ago, gargantuan glowing “50” signs started popping up at various points of interest throughout the city. It took mere hours for them to be vandalized. (Side note: I find it pretty amusing that somebody tagged one “Evict Ed Lee,” the Mayor of San Francisco, although I don’t expect it to resonate much with the tourists). If anything, out-of-towners probably will just dismiss the vandalism as infantile actings-out, and it’s not hard to see why: They’re big and ugly and glow all night long. They’re almost asking for it.
But the signs represent much more than some gold-gleaming anniversary. These acts of vandalism were, at their core, symbolic attacks. It’s about the fees the city waived as it let the NFL brand our public parks. It’s about the estimated $5 million it’s costing the city to host the Super Bowl, when the Super Bowl Host Committee is only going to reimburse around $100,000 of those expenses (the NFL will be giving exactly $0). It’s about the thousands of city employees being urged to skip work this week and “volunteer” at Super Bowl City. It’s about the towers and banners taking over downtown San Francisco, despite the game being played 40-something miles away in Santa Clara.
Why so far flung? Simple: their politicians would offer up more city debt to finance a new 49ers’ stadium. Although, in Santa Clara’s defense, at least they negotiated to receive $3.5 million to cover the same costs San Francisco is providing virtually for free. Good thing City Hall never opened up this decision to public review.
The level of corruption between city politicians and the NFL is so rampant, so out-front obvious, it boggles the mind that no one, on any level, has been indicted or brought up on charges. And that’s before we even get to the street sweeps.
No, I’m not talking about the machines that suck up cigarette butts and other urban litter. I’m talking about the crews hired to canvas city streets to break up homeless encampments and confiscate their tents, because, as Mayor Ed Lee said last summer, the city’s bloated population of homeless “are going to have to leave.” Not that anyone’s offered up a reasonable, quasi-permanent solution for the 75 percent who don’t have shelter.
We’re taking the “out of sight, out of mind” approach on this one.
City Supervisor Jane Kim put it most succinctly when she told The Guardian, “We’re moving the poorest people out for this party, a party that we’re subsidizing for some of the wealthiest people in the world.” Lest you forget, the average Super Bowl now pulls in somewhere north of $200 million in ad revenue alone, money which goes to the networks, which helps pay the $3 billion a year the NFL makes from TV contracts.
Meanwhile, people are having their tents confiscated to make room for Roger Goodell’s gleaming Super Bowl City. In all likelihood, the protests predicted to erupt this week are going to do little to elicit rage among the tens of thousands flocking to San Francisco to celebrate.
It’s hard to pinpoint how, exactly we got to this point. Okay, sure, the Super Bowl bid wars have been escalating since the late 1970s, just a few years after they created the thing. But the point at which we become so blinded by the spectacle of football that we turn away from its impact — its blatant, in-your-face impact — on our cities and communities? There’s no hotel pool clear or shimmering enough to give us the mirror we need.
Some of this is willful, I think, on all of our parts. And some of it is the simple result of really, really good PR. If you’ve watched any football games over the past year, you’ve probably been exposed to “Football is Family,” the NFL’s latest ad campaign. Now, it’s not hard to grasp what they were going for here. Football is, for good or ill, a human endeavor, one where sacrifices are made, risks taken, and dreams chased to bitter ends. Taken at a literal level, football means a lot for America’s families, as it did for mine — I have fond memories of watching Packers games with my dad, or playing Madden with my best friends.
But let’s not bullshit ourselves: football is not family. Football is a marketplace. At its most fundamental, it is about the buying and selling of teams, logos, advertisements, stadiums, politicians, real estate, players, bodies, power, potential, and ideas. It’s a metastatic outgrowth of late capitalism that ultimately serves but one purpose: to enrich its executive board and 32 franchise owners.
That’s an admittedly dark way of looking at it, but in a way, it’s also what makes football the ideal American game, even if it doesn’t feel much like a game anymore. It’s like watching all the major forces governing modern-day America — sex, violence, the individual ego, and most important, money — play out in hyperspeed simulations every Sunday on national TV.
Perhaps that sounds a smidge overdramatic. But when even the NFL acknowledges (albeit obtusely) that its place in society transcends the physical fact of 22 men chasing a pigskin, then those ideas seem less like exaggeration. As the league grows ever larger, brighter, faster, richer, and more violent, watching professional football begins to feel like a preview of the next act in America’s ongoing drama, and I’m not at all comfortable with the direction it seems to point.
It’s been six months now. Maybe it’s time to get a broom and knock that Rams hat out of the tree. Even after the carnival down the street has packed up and left San Francisco, every time I get a pay stub, I’ll stop to wonder how many of my tax dollars are being siphoned off by City Hall to help pay off the deficit from evicting homeless people for the NFL.
I’m not sure I’ll need any more reminders.