Athletics, Inequality, and Frivolity

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

spartan football stadiumfrom the Latin frivolus, of little value; adj. 1. Unworthy of serious attention; trivial. 2. Inappropriately silly. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

When I walk into the MSU Libraries in the early mornings a few days each week, I can’t help but note the lighted Spartan symbol ablaze across the river at the Stadium. This recent addition has been burning more or less continually, along with additional other lights from the stadium.

I’m sure the lights must be of the energy efficient LED variety, but given the sheer size of this scoreboard and two others on the opposite end of the stadium, there are plenty of watts being pulled from the power plant to make this image light up the night (and early morning hours). As the photo above shows the Stadium is under yet another renovation, this one a $24 million dollar upgrade for recruiting and media. Typically this 75,000 seat stadium, like most of the NCAA football facilities, is home to only six or seven games a year.

When I watch the construction taking place, the tons of material and equipment needed to add upgraded locker rooms and a media center for athletics for seven days a year and to begin to fathom the embodied energy involved in its creation I almost weep. $24 million dollars could purchase materials that would provide nearly 50% of the households in the entire country of Burkina Faso with a biosand water filter that would provide the sixth least developed country in Africa with safe water for eight to ten years. Which option seems more frivolous?

Or $24 million could add $4,800 to each current MSU student in financial aid? Which is more frivolous?

If we were to look at the twin crises of climate change and accelerating inequality as a lens to measure the worth of our investments and spending, what might we currently be doing that would seem frivolous? Can we afford to be frivolous given those huge dual challenges we face? Looking through that lens should have us reexamine for ourselves how much frivolity the human family and the planet that sustains us can withstand. Frivolity is perhaps a kinder term for what we waste in a finite world.

Justin Verlander, a Detroit Tiger pitcher, signed a contract for $180 million over five years or about $36 million a year. If he could scrape by on a measly $1 million a year, even for just one year he could fund an additional 366,000 more water filters than the Spartans. Which is more frivolous? Or the Tigers could reduce ticket prices by $11 for each of the 3,000,000 fans, perhaps making it  possible for some poorer fans,  especially youngsters who can’t afford current ticket prices ($20+),  an opportunity to watch them play.

As the weekly newsletter on inequality, Too Much, notes just last week

    Execs at Walmart don’t much at all like critics blasting them for paying out so little in wages. Last week, at a New Jersey event, Walmart’s U.S. chief Bill Simon defiantly boasted that “less than 1 percent” of his workers earn at minimum-wage levels. Left unsaid: Most Walmart workers don’t make much above minimum, as Simon himself admitted at a recent global retailing conference. Simon pronounced at that affair that 475,000 Walmart “associates” made over $25,000 last year, a stat that leaves over half Walmart’s million workers making less. Simon last week also ridiculed this Tuesday’s ballot-box effort to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage. Simon’s own “wage”? Over $11.2 million last year. He made more in a day than minimum-wagers can make in two years.

In the same issue of Too Much, they cite former chief World Bank economist, Herman Daly who offers ten approaches to reversing inequality.

     No one in the world today has done more than Herman Daly to infuse modern environmental thought with an egalitarian sensibililty. Daly, a former World Bank economist now at the University of Maryland, has a new analysis out that suggests 10 policies “for ending uneconomic growth” and building an “earth-centric” new century. High on his list: a call for setting both a personal income minimum and maximum. In some nations, Daly points out, few wealthy pull in over 25 times their society’s minimum income. In Corporate America, by contrast, that gap runs 500 times. Asks Daly: “Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works?” Wouldn’t a $20,000 minimum and a $2 million maximum, he adds, be “more than enough to give incentive for hard work”?

Think about how we unwittingly support the increasing and sometimes obscene income inequality. I know we can’t end the construction at Spartan Stadium, or shrink Verlander’s salary to a paltry $1 million per year. But couldn’t we at least turn out the lights when the stadium and other businesses are closed.

I have no accurate clue on how much energy is being frivolously used in lighting the emblems at Spartan Stadium when it’s not in use. I could be off by a factor of ten. But assuming they are using LED’s that consume say 20 watts each and assuming maybe 200 of them lighting up those Spartan emblems that’s 4,000 watts an hour. If they burn 12 hours a day that’s 48,000 watts. If they do that every day of the year, minus the 7 days of football we’re talking 7,000,000 watt hours. MSU can surely afford it, but can the rest of the planet’s living family. In sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated that 589 million of our kin are without electricity. If we weren’t so frivolous with our own consumption, maybe we could help some of them out.

Jimmy Carter was ridiculed asking businesses to turn out their lights when they were closed. If we had listened to Carter three decades ago we might not be facing the challenges before us now.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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