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Jonathan Silverstone Headshot

#OccupyLA ... Angels?

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In December 2011, as the Occupy movement spread rapidly to cities large and small,
baseball slugger and World Series champion Albert Pujols signed a deal with the Los
Angeles Angels that would pay him more than $250 million over ten years. But while
Occupy LA continued approximately thirty miles from the Angels' home in Anaheim,
protesting the excesses and abuses of "the corporate forces of the world," Pujols' contract
went largely ignored. As the popular movement spurred by Occupy Wall Street calls into
question pervasive corruption and greed in America, athletes and the sports world as a
whole seem completely immune from any similar public scrutiny despite sharing many of
the characteristics of the corporate world that Occupy protests.

As news of the deal initially circulated throughout the media, the reactions among most
major sources included awe at the size of the deal, speculation as to whether Pujols' age
will allow him to succeed in an Angels uniform, how this deal will affect the franchise,
and why Los Angeles became the team that was able to land Pujols. Recent analysis of
the terms of the contract reveals that it pays him more later in his tenure as an Angel,
allowing the franchise to accommodate other massive signings. But as sources analyzed
the Pujols contract every which way under the usual lens of sports reporting, and viewed
the $254 million figure as a relative value in the world of professional sports, no one
stopped to wonder at what this number and our apparent complacency with it reflect.
The typical coverage of the deal could be expected from the traditional media, but what
appears most unsettling is the lack of deeper response from the outlet that should view all
levels of apparent excess the same: the people.

The same people who have taken to the streets and the Internet to express their frustration
with the perceived wrongs of the corporate world and of the government in dealing with
it have left this part of American society -- the realm of sports -- untouched. Professional
athletes and the business (yes, just like all else, it is a business) around them remain
sacrosanct. But is that compatible with the passions of the American people that have
allowed them to withstand pepper spray and physical response? Is it morally palatable to
make an exception for professional athletes when the same level of excess is criticized in
other business?

This does not need to be an argument about the value of professional sports in society.
There have probably been more Yankees hats than one could count at Occupy Wall
Street, and that says everything about how much sport means to a city. The media has
snapped photos of President Obama many times in his White Sox hat and he continues to
honor the superlative athletes in America at the White House. However, there are many
abuses in the world of sports that can and should lead to condemnation of its excesses.
Many superstars who receive massive salaries under their contracts have committed
major crimes off the field and violated the image that is expected of them. Even while
serving a larger social good, franchises have taken advantage of fans with increasingly
unaffordable ticket and merchandise prices, which translate into extremely high salaries
for players. Many upper tier college athletics programs will allow professional caliber
players to matriculate and graduate with few or no academic standards, sending a
message that devalues academics in places where they matter most. The government
continues to fund athletic ventures even in the face of cuts to necessary social spending.
Despite all the problems in the world of sports, Occupy or the people that keep it going
have not noticeably reacted distastefully to any of its excesses and corruption.

The problems in professional sports that could raise doubts about the business parallel
those of the oft-protested corporate world: there is an emphasis on the success of a select
few, the money the public puts into holding up the industry could be better used for the
expansion of more opportunity to more people and for basic social services, and the
corrupt have been allowed to come out on top. The same corporate forces Occupy has
targeted provide much of the sponsorship for the franchises that pay these salaries as
well. Tax breaks have financed many aspects of professional sports that continue to pay
tens of millions a year to players, yet Occupy takes issue just with tax breaks to large
corporations. The question then remains why, if there are so many similarities between
sports and the existing targets of Occupy, professional sports are not criticized in the
scope of this movement.

The financial sector harms people more directly than the happenings of the professional
sports business, affecting the overall health of the economy and often their own savings.
People also generally understand sports more than the inner workings of the financial
sector, and it is easier to protest a foreign yet pronounced malignant force than an
industry centered on sports that American people of every background played in their
youth. However, the difficulty in acknowledging the issue of exorbitant salaries in a
business that practices many of the same wrongs as the financial sector should not excuse
it from consideration.

Perhaps another reason for this incongruity could be the same reason that Penn State's
student body rallied around the godlike Joe Paterno despite the sexual misconduct he
allegedly ignored. It is quite possible that many of us refuse to acknowledge and discuss
meaningfully anything but perfection from our sporting idols, unless the imperfection
comes on the playing field. But fans, athletes, executives, and disinterested citizens
alike have admitted that there are imperfections in pro sports, some of which are rooted
in the very fundamentals of its place in society. Why then, during a time period and a
movement that have sought answers and change from the most foundational parts of
American society, can any force that has much to be asked of it be left ignored? While
#OccupyLAAngels may not take the Twitterverse by storm anytime soon, maybe it
should.

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