What Price Football?

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SPORTS has its place. Athletic competition highlights talent, demands commitment, and teaches the value of teamwork. It's an element of vigor and balance in the all-too-sedentary lives led by many Americans. But headlines from the world of athletics/business make us wonder if things haven't swung wildly out of balance.

First, the NFL's new contracts with the TV networks. True, we all knew this was big business. The league, after all, was only angling for what it thought the market would bear. The networks see pro football as one of the few sure things left - a vehicle advertisers can't resist. So the $3.6 billion paid by ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, and Turner Entertainment makes sense, right?

Only, and not even necessarily, in the narrow business sense. Some ad executives suspect the networks may have set themselves up for a fumble - that advertisers will finally rebel at paying up to $1 million a minute.

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Beyond that possibility, does this huge expenditure do anything to shore up sagging US competitiveness? Will it produce needed jobs? What's one to make of a country that can generate billions for televised games but has agonies figuring out how to increase its investment in dilapidated inner-city schools?

That brings us to Oakland, which last week announced its readiness to fork over $602 million to bring the Raiders back to town. Oakland is stalked by poverty, drug use, and poor schools. If it can scrape together this kind of cash, why spend it on a football team? Prestige, popularity, a place in the sun, that's why.

And while we're at it, what about the lucrative arrangements among coaches, players, and the $10 billion a year sneaker industry? It's not just Michael Jordan's $1.6 million Nike endorsement. Business also makes deals with successful high school basketball coaches, giving coach access to a few thousand extra dollars and his players access to $80 sneakers. It's just good promotion.

It's also troubling to anyone concerned about the values being passed along to the next generation of Americans.

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