Banks, Baseball, and What's Wrong with "Naming Rights"

03/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Long Island's daily Newsday invited me to write a piece about the local (and now national) controversy over the Mets' new ballpark being named for an incompetent bank in which taxpayers have invested $45 billion. Here's the piece, which turned into some thoughts about populism, politics, and the public good.

The brouhaha over Citigroup's naming rights to the new Mets stadium - which has even reached the U.S. Congress, where two House members have asked the Treasury Secretary to dissolve the deal - taps into intense feelings locally and across the country, not only about a storied baseball franchise, but also about the economic mess we're in.

Outraged by corporate jets, office- redecoration sprees and Wall Street bonuses, millions of Americans have rediscovered a populist fury at the folks who loved the free - read, "almost entirely deregulated, with major government tax subsidies" - market until their high-flying shenanigans brought their own companies to ruin. Among the targets of rage is Citigroup, which has a $400-million naming rights deal with the Mets and a fresh $45 billion bailout check from the federal government.

More important than anger - though anger is always a good place to start when we see injustice - is that we are beginning to think in new ways about the economy our tax dollars are trying to save.

The Citi Field fracas may help point the way for us to reclaim what we used to call the public sphere from 30 years of galloping, mean-spirited, tightfisted privatization of just about everything.

Let's start with the easy stuff. Who among us enjoys attending sports events at arenas or stadiums named for corporations? There are hundreds of such venues, ranging from - and I am not making this up - Pringles Park (Jackson, Tenn.) and Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland), Pizza Hut Park (Frisco, Texas), Whataburger Field (Corpus Christi, Texas) as well as the ones you know about: major league ballparks carrying the names of Tropicana, Minute Maid, AT&T, Citizens Bank, Comerica, PNC, Progressive (Insurance, not politics), Safeco, Target and U.S. Cellular. I'll bet most of you can't identify where most of these are located. I'm a baseball historian, and I can't.

I don't like much about the New York Yankees, but at least they have the good sense (and attachment to their brand) not to sell the new stadium's identity out to the highest bidder.

I'm not going to claim that sports teams, especially the Yankees, embody the public good. They've held far too many city councils hostage for gargantuan subsidies and tax breaks, to deserve our thanks. It's sports fans who insist on thinking - in the face of obvious facts - that their teams belong, in some important sense, to the community. After all, we give allegiance to a team and sometimes to a ballpark-never to a legal construct invented to limit the personal liability of its owners for bad decisions.

I think the anger Mets fans (and others) are directing toward Citi represents a reassertion of our rights to a genuine public sphere.

Since the Reagan years we've seen everything from our passenger rail system to big city public schools to the U.S. Army succumb to the lure of irresponsible, often incompetent, occasionally criminal "privatization." For 30 years, industry lobbyists have been rewriting regulations that were supposed to protect things we thought we held in common - the air, national parks, national forests, drinking water, streams and rivers, lakes and bays, mountains and deserts - so that corporations could exploit them for private profit.

The tax code, for most of the last century a modestly successful tool for redistributing wealth from the few to the many, has, in the same period, been turned nearly upside down on the theory that the very rich would sprinkle their taxpayer-subsidized gains over the rest of us like fairy dust. That's why hedge fund managers only pay 15 percent on their salaries, while most college professors pay 25 percent. Regressive taxes and privatization have starved public services into a shambles, which we promptly blame on "government."

Now, with a depression staring us in the face, Americans are waking up from their ideological torpor, starting to talk about what "we" ought to be doing with "our" ownership stake in the corporations that brought us to the brink of disaster. We can begin with limiting executive salaries and killing naming-rights deals. If President Barack Obama really wants to break the logjam in Washington, he ought to start tapping into Americans' newfound hunger for an economy and society that works for all of us.

Warren Goldstein teaches American history at the University of Hartford. His book, "Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball," will be published this spring in a 20th anniversary edition. Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.