“But Sports Are Big Money”

“Millions for Illitch but not a Penny for Detroit” was the headline in today’s Metro Times.  At a time when the city’s financial manager is seriously considering selling of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection, Michigan wants to give boat loads of money to a billionaire to build a new sports arena.  Or as Jack Lessenberry worded it in his article:

Yet, what would you think if I were to suggest that the state pick one Detroiter, a guy who happens to be struggling along on his last $2.7 billion, and give him public money? Lots of money.

An estimated $284.5 million, to start. By the way, we aren’t giving him this dough to start a public works project, or to do anything that will actually help Detroiters, though the politicians are pretending it will. We will be coughing up this money so that Mike Ilitch can build a new hockey arena.

What strikes me about this story is the entirely different way we view sports and arts in our culture.  Theater and sporting events are both activities that spectators attend in their leisure to be entertained.  Yet when  we talk about building sports stadiums it is almost always framed in terms of economic development. When we talk about building a symphony hall it is generally framed as charitable giving.  Rich donors put their names on arts venues to show their civic mindedness.  Supporting art is philanthropy.  Supporting sport is investment.

In his highly viewed and entertaining TED Talk on creativity in schools, Ken Robinson said “…something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: every education system on earth has the same heirarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think maths is very important but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to, we all do. We all have bodies, don’t we? Did I miss a meeting? Truthfully what happens is, as children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

But this is not exactly right.  We do train children’s bodies– in physical education class.  We teach them to play sports.  In terms of career building, soccer is no more practical for most children than ballet.  Few kids will grow up to play in the World Cup Championships and few will dance with American Ballet Theater.  We teach soccer anyway.  High schools usually have huge sports programs and competitions with other schools. Sports are part of school pride.

Professional sports scores are shown every day as part of the evening news in exactly the way reviews of the city’s theatrical productions are generally not, at least not with any consistency or regularity.  There are, of course, entertainment programs, but Entertainment Tonight is not news.

I can’t come up with any reason why this should be so, why watching a game for fun should have so much more social support than watching a theatrical production.  The only theory I have is that sports appeal to men and are considered masculine while the arts are viewed as part of the feminine sphere.  The masculine sphere is the world of business and the feminine sphere is supposed to operate as part the gift economy.   (Child rearing, home making and so on.)  Fathers take their sons to baseball games and mothers take their daughters to dance class and so baseball is part of training for a man’s life of earning and dance is part of training for a woman’s life of being beautiful and supported by others.

You might say that I am being conspiracy minded here.  Sports are economic development and arts are not  because more people spend big money on sports.  If arts made that kind of money,  we’d be investing in theaters as economic development. This may be true, but doesn’t it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?  In a world where schools cut arts programs and focus on building new sports fields, where sports results finish every news cast while classical arts can only be found regularly on Youtube, wouldn’t you expect sports stars to command greater salaries than ballerinas?

This isn’t the only possible way to view the arts.  Suppose that our schools taught all children learn to play and appreciate in the arts at the same level they do sports.  Might a foundation of  appreciation and pride in the arts lead to a culture in which the arts report was a regular feature on the news along with the sports and weather?  If this were the case, maybe the opening of a new opera house would have the same kind of hype and focus as the opening of a hockey stadium.   The arts could be part of our sense of civic pride. We could be as loyal to our local music scene, theater and dance company as to our sports team.  We could boast about how our museum kicks your museum’s butt.

During the Cold War when the Soviet Union wanted to impress the world with the strength of its nation, they invested in their arts as well as their space program and Olympic athletes.  We competed with them with our rockets, and with our Olympic program but we left the classical music and ballet to them.

What might our arts landscape be like today if we had entered an arts race with the Russians?

(See also my post David Hallberg, Random Penguins and Things That Give Me Hope as a Writer.)



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