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Redifining sportsmanship in the age of egregious greed and persistent lying

The dictionary defines “sportsmanship” as “fair play; respect for opponents; polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport.”

That definition is woefully out of date. Now the definition of “sportsmanship” is “egregious greed; persistent lying.” These days, professional sports are more corrupt than almost any industry, as, in one city after another, billionaire team owners put guns to taxpayers’ heads and say, “Pay up, or I move the team.”

But that heist — which is afflicting San Diego again — is just one of many sports scams in these defiled days.

Pro soccer is one of the slimiest games in the world. Big bribes determine which nation will host the World Cup and prominent matches. Under-the-table payoffs determine which manufacturer will provide uniforms and footwear in the championships.

Last year, United States prosecutors indicted 14 executives from FIFA, soccer’s governing body, for wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. Seven of them were arrested in Switzerland, which doesn’t require significant financial transparency and thus is headquarters for the organization. (Not surprisingly, Switzerland, the haven for the world’s dirty money, is also headquarters for a number of sports, including cycling, hockey, crossbow shooting, archery, and for the International Olympic Committee, which has generated some scandals. Salt Lake City got the 2002 Olympics as a result of “gifts” that passed under the table.)

The cities that are chosen to host the Olympics often wind up in economic trouble that increases poverty. Brazil’s economy was going gangbusters when Rio de Janeiro, Brazil won the 2016 Olympics. But by the summer of 2016, more than 20 percent of Brazilians were living in poverty and 4 percent in extreme poverty. Rio spent $4.6 billion of public money on the games. It’s not likely to get that back. London earned $3.5 billion in revenue on the 2012 Olympics. It spent $18 billion. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist concluded last year that there is no net economic gain for hosts of the Olympics or World Cup. (But there are covert gains for promoters, of course.)

The scandals just keep coming. Consider doping. Mark McGwire hit 583 home runs in his Major League Baseball playing career. He admitted using performance-enhancing drugs but was nonetheless the Padres bench coach last season. He still has a chance to make the Hall of Fame.

Sports gambling is ubiquitous. University of San Diego basketball is an example. A former star guard and a former coach admitted involvement in a game-fixing ring.

Maybe San Diegans are so accustomed to sports corruption that they are blind to the scam the Chargers are trying to pull off.

In 1995, the team got taxpayers to support a remake of the stadium now named Qualcomm. The team promised to stay until 2020 if it got the gift. Within a couple of years of occupying the renovated stadium, the team was angling for a new stadium — in San Diego or (surreptitiously) in Los Angeles. The Chargers got a ticket guarantee from San Diego; if not enough seats were filled, the city anted up. The team’s propaganda indicated that the city would profit from this deal — “utterly and totally misrepresenting the risk,” says former councilmember Bruce Henderson. The city’s losses mounted, and under public pressure, the Chargers agreed to drop the 60,000-seat guarantee — in exchange for a massive slash in their rent.

Back in the 1990s, the Chargers insisted on a clause in their contract stating that if revenue didn’t meet team goals, the team could move elsewhere. Henderson said correctly that this was a “team-shopping clause.” Dishonestly, the Chargers denied that. Actually, it was a roadmap out of town, as we now know.

Last year, the Chargers said they had a deal to share a stadium in the L.A. area (Carson) with the Oakland Raiders. It was a Potemkin village. There was no meaningful deal in Carson. Dean Spanos actually believed that the National Football League owners would back him in the purported Carson “deal.” Spanos apparently ignored the fact that a competing owner, who also wanted a home in L.A., was worth, with his wife, more than five times what Spanos was then worth. Spanos was stunned to be snubbed by other team owners and returned to San Diego and told the citizenry that he still had a very good deal in Los Angeles but decided that he loved San Diego too much to leave. Apparently, some San Diegans believed this colossal fish tale.

Says Councilmember Scott Sherman, “The Chargers’ word doesn’t mean very much. The Chargers have proven over and over that they cannot be trusted.”

Measure C, which San Diegans will vote on in November, proves that. “The biggest lie of all is that Measure C commits the Chargers to anything at all,” says Henderson. The team would get an option to play in a city-owned stadium. If Measure C passes, says Henderson, “the Chargers have no obligation to do anything.”

There is another whopper. The hotel tax would be raised from 10.5 percent to 16.5 percent — more than a 50 percent hike. The Chargers claim that tourists will be the ones paying the higher tax. Nonsense. Tourism is San Diego’s second-largest industry. Receipts from the hotel tax have been a critical part of government revenue for years. If the hotel tax is raised by more than 50 percent and the resulting revenue goes to a football stadium, the city will have to find other sources of money. Funds will come out of San Diegans’ pockets — or, alternatively, streets, roads, sewers, water delivery, and the like will continue to be embarrassingly inadequate.

As years go on, more than $100 million a year will be diverted to a football team that has not done well on the field since the Spanos family bought 60 percent of it in 1984, and in the next decade bought most of the rest. As hotel room rates grow, that annual $100 million–plus will grow sharply. But if Measure C passes and construction plans solidify, San Diego will be committed to a family whose honesty is as shaky as its team’s performance.

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