Attachment To The Vikings Is Harming Our State

Over the past couple of years, I’ve read the headlines and stories of misplays, misappropriations, and malfeasance concerning the Vikings stadium and Vikings players—and then I’ve read the complaints from the public regarding each individual episode.

All taken together, however, one can see that such disappointments are simply exploits of a more fundamental cause.

But first…

Minnesota sports fans, take a joyously torturous trip down memory lane with me, will you?

I was a senior in high school when the Vikings with new starting quarterback, Randall Cunningham, and exciting new wide out, Randy Moss, kicked off the 1998 season. Me and the Minnesota fandom watched the first couple of games and realized the team was onto something.

We won a lot of exciting games that season. My personal favorite being the Monday Night Football match in week 5 when we went into Lambeau. National TV and the voice of Al Michaels. When this guy talked about my team, I felt special. And when he yelled “And Randy Moss!” after his second touchdown versus the Packers, I was elated and proud. Proud? Yes, proud. (Non-sports fans, I know this sounds crazy.)

Each Monday morning, my friends in second hour agriculture class would gather around a school copy of the Star Tribune and analyze the stats of the game the day before. It was almost always a victory to celebrate. Did Robert Smith get his hundred yards? Did John Randle get a couple sacks? Where’s he at for the season, anyway? I’d watch NFL Primetime each Sunday evening, and my girlfriend, Wendy, would roll her eyes as I watched the replays of the games I had already seen. “You already know who won,” she’d say.

But we know how this season ends.

Our high school was planning a ski trip the Sunday of the NFC Championship Game. I planned to go, but then I saw that the bus was leaving at 3:00 p.m. So I approached Mr. Merrill, the school extra-curricular advisor, and told him that that might run into the end of the game. He pushed back the start of the trip to 3:30.

On the day of the game we sat to watch. John Madden, the patriarchal voice of the NFL, would honor my club. I still remember the line (crazy how this stuff sticks with you), “The Vikings are starting to establish some dominance,” he said as the Vikings were driving toward the end of the game to finish it off. But we missed the field goal, and Atlanta was able to tie it up. The game into overtime, and before it ended, I had to go catch the bus for the ski trip.  Driving to school, I got to hear over the radio Atlanta kicking the field goal to win it.

I was crushed.

I skied, and I cried. (And I smile with embarrassment as I type this, looking back on how much it hurt me.) Wendy was annoyed at me acting this way. But she just didn’t understand.

Through college, I was similarly hooked, though I don’t think I cried ever again. I watched a lot of football on TV and spent a lot of time on the new frontier of sports media: the internet, a goldmine of 24–hour coverage and statistics. My team’s and my team’s players’ accomplishments were my own nuggets of personal pride. Mondays I’d come back from the dining hall after lunch knowing this was when to read the NFL weekend wrap-up on CNNSI.com. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Power Rankings were posted on ESPN.com and CBSSports.com. Where would “I” stand on their rankings? Would these articles talk about “me”? And this was just the coverage. The games themselves had me glued to every snap—or pitch or shot depending on the season. The action and drama one seeks in life I sought through men in jerseys.

I don’t know if my experience is extreme or simply well-articulated. What I do know is that sometime in my early 20s I recognized my own personal impairment due to the quantity and quality of time I invested into sports. So I worked to detach.

For me, this meant turning off the television and planning other activities. It wasn’t quitting smoking, but it also wasn’t easy. I had been tutoring some high school siblings at the time and planned our sessions at their home for Sunday afternoons. Even so, I’d stop helping them with their math lessons at around 2:30 and ask to turn their TV on to see how the Vikings’ game was ending.

I also began to travel more during the football season. I remember watching two plays of the Philadelphia Eagles playoff game in 2008 as I was about to board a plane. A couple of years later, I was living in China for the season. (Within that time, the Brett Favre year admittedly sucked me back in, but with a new perspective. I tried to watch that NFC Championship Game without going crazy. My turning stomach and clammy, clenched fists told me I failed. But I viewed such reactions with some objectivity from which to learn.)

Then after getting back from China, my detachment from sports was boosted in a big way by seeing what sports attachment was doing to inflict bad policy on the state and city.

The Twins’ stadium had already been approved and built in part due to subverting the legal obligation to put such a financial approval to democratic vote. That kind of rule-changing isn’t just annoying; for those who didn’t approve of the spending, it was a slap in the face. But once passed, we were all told to get over it and move on. Sour grapes be smashed. And indeed, people came out in droves to bask in the glow of a sunny opening day at Target Field, April 12, 2010. I went myself just to check out the activity and was admittedly impressed by the energy in the air.

My friends have Twins season tickets to this day, and I’ve gone to a few of these games. To the degree that they are enjoyable—and I’ve seen some great games there—the experiences are always held in check by the knowledge of how this complex came to be. Turns out, though, the Twins’ stadium was just a warm-up, a practice run for how to really exploit people’s attachment to sports, contorting the morals of everyone in the state from Average Joe to Mayor to Governor.

***

My father is a good American conservative. He likes his Bill O’Reilly. He goes to church each Sunday. He taught me how to shoot a rifle, how to work on my car, how to throw a football. He demonstrated how to be reasonable man, how to work hard, how to put family first, and how to cheer like crazy for the Vikings.

When the debate for the stadium was up in the air, I wondered where he’d lean. Making people pay for something they don’t want—particularly a superfluous expense like a stadium—is a pretty clear violation of the morals I was taught by him.

But it’s the Vikings we’re talking here.

He thinking of the palatial new stadium and his enjoyment during his annual Vikings game trip down to “The Cities” from our rural home, he spoke with me on the phone with complete conviction about how the new stadium would create jobs and how the ticket sales and tax revenues would help the state.

“Dad? Is that you on the phone?”

Indeed it was him as well as countless others suddenly seeing the light for why we needed to help pay for the home of a privately-owned enterprise.

My dad and company didn’t come up with these justifications for no reason. They had good cause. The threat was tossed out there that if Minnesotans didn’t pay up—and didn’t force their fellows to—the Vikings might find someplace that will.

“What?!” was the collective reaction. Red Alert! AHHHHHH!! No Vikings?! NO!!! ( I can hear this last expression in Paul Allen’s famous Vikings vs. Cardinals game call.)

Suddenly, the state’s politicians began to support the offer they were getting from the Vikings owners and came up with a way to help pay for Minnesota’s part by relying on people to gamble.

I believe gambling should be a choice anyone should be able to make on his own accord. But now we’re encouraging  it—institutionally.

This is a true moral hazard: rooting for people to blow their money gambling so we can cheer for touchdowns.

And for many Vikings’ fans, this is a true moral warp. Those who go to church each Sunday and learn that it’s a sin to gamble are now hoping others do so.

But the proposed gambling (the electronic pull tabs) didn’t pan out. (As bad as that might seem to some, people not gambling is probably a good thing.) And the “deal” the state got from the owners—by comparison to others made in other cities since—reveal that it might not have been such a good deal after all. Well, bad for the state, but good for the owners. After the stadium deal went through, the team’s value shot up $200 million.

The cause of this situation is deeper than bad negotiating from our politicians or not being more creative or due diligent in trying to come up with a way to pay for a stadium. This was about coming to the table from a position of weakness. The owners and the NFL didn’t just have something Minnesota wanted. They had something Minnesota thought they needed. I can only believe that Minneapolis Mayor Rybak thought that getting the stadium in Minneapolis would be his swan song upon leaving the mayor’s chair and that Minnesota Governor Dayton was thinking “Not on my watch!” when afraid the team would leave.

With clearer heads, these politicians actually had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something truly courageous and great. The state could have stood up to the league and made a statement:

We love the Vikings. They are part of our history, social fabric, and economy, and we are here to cheer for them. We are a good market for this franchise. We will go to games and buy jerseys and watch on television. We will be loyal. We have all this to offer you should you choose to stay here and build your stadium. If you leave, we’ll be here to cheer on another franchise should they choose to come and take advantage of all we offer.    

We are not going to force people to pay a king’s ransom for something many people don’t want and via gambling revenue. We are not going to use tax money to pay for a private business—especially one shown time and again to be a bad investment. We are not going to cross that ethical line just because of our love of sports. 

It is hard to conceive of the benefit of making such a decision just as it’s hard to imagine the benefit of saying no to a party where everyone’s having a ball but you really should go home and get ready for work the next day. Right away, all you think about is the lost opportunity. But we know the benefit is there. As we sometimes say: short term pain is long term gain.

Indeed, on the other side of such a stand would have been a better economy—money not tied up in a stadium, less gambling—and a statewide self-confidence for not being bullied and not giving into our fear of being Viking-less. On an individual level, such an established line prioritizes those things which are more important. In all, we’d not be under the weight of bad precedent that we’ve now established, which now tells us that yes, our morals and character are for sale.

Be we are under that weight.

And like a lie to cover up a lie or a poker player’s bad defeat putting him on tilt to perpetuate more failure, the stadium deal—which was sold in part to taxpayers with the promise of a Super Bowl—set up state representatives to sign the under-the-table Superbowl agreement giving the NFL an array of freebies amounting into the millions that will come from the pockets of citizens.

As Warren Buffett says, “It’s easier to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble.”

***

To complain about disappointments with the Vikings stadium or the Superbowl deal proves hollow when we ignore what it is that got us here and keeps us coming back. To simply get angry at the players who commit crimes and let us down misses the point that we put them and football on this pedestal.

Supporters of the stadium have the convenient fallback of saying—as they did with the Twins’ stadium: Water under the bridge. Get over it. Move on. The best solution isn’t living in the past and complaining, it’s finding a solution for problems at hand. They’re right. We do need to look forward. But rather than a solution to the problem being ways to further enable the attachment, truly moving forward means rooting out the cause of all these problems. And that root cause is this:

Minnesota is too attached to the Vikings.

As long as Minnesotans think that they need the Vikings like food and air, the opportunity for being taken advantage of will always be present. All one could do when the stadium was being talked about was hope that a benevolent owner would choose to sacrifice his own business gain and not exploit this opportunity. That the Wilf family was able to take money given to them from Minnesotans is simply a symptom of people’s over-attachment.

Other symptoms were the ignoring of numerous economic studies showing no growth from a new stadium or from hosting a Super Bowl; the ignoring of the recent buildings of two championship-winning franchise professional sports stadiums built entirely with private cash (New England Patriots, San Francisco Giants); and the ignoring of what most of us were taught and know to be right and wrong.

These things were missed because what isn’t is what defines a person, what he finds meaning in. And when we invest these existential elements into harmful things (drugs or alcohol) or to an extreme degree (too attached to sports), we cultivate grounds (or break ground on structures) that reap problems.

A huge part of the marketing effort for the stadium was Adrian Peterson. As a ticker-seller, as the face of the franchise, as the player most helping the Vikings win games, he probably owned the largest individual piece of responsibility for selling the stadium to the public. For the sake of the owners and the league, it’s a good thing he was caught disciplining his kids too hard after the stadium was approved.

***

It may be too late to say no to the stadium; it might be too late to take back the Super Bowl deal. Minnesota might have lackluster teams in shiny new stadiums to boot—another kick in our shorts.

But it’s never too late to learn from mistakes and realize what should be done to correct the trajectory. And though I’ve referred to this as problem as belonging to the state of Minnesota, the solution starts with the individual.

Detach.

Start now while the team in losing. Break away—if just a little. Watch, and cheer/groan depending on the outcome, but then go about your day. Or ignore the games altogether if you have something better to do. Perhaps treat football like you would the Minnesota soccer club. Get some apathy for the Vikings.

Today I’m in East Africa, where I’m wrapping up a nine-month project at a village school. Having gotten into the city on weekends, I’ve caught the headlines regarding this year’s NFL drama around player misconduct and the league’s responsibility to be the parent and judge for their players. The way I see it, the pressure for the NFL to assume this role and the hyper-attention on the players’ off-the-field activity are products of an entire nation’s attachment to the game.

I’m preferring my perspective of being outside-looking-in.

But I come back to Minnesota in one week. Then I’ll see how magnetic the television is on Sunday afternoons, whether I need to schedule a jog or trip to my great Aunt’s house.

All this said, there’s a deep part of me that will always be a Vikings fan. I got nostalgia thinking about and looking up the information for the past seasons mentioned above. But even the diehard fan needs to recognize when their attachment begins to warp their perspective and positions. Clutch too hard to something and shenanigans can go on behind your back. It’s up to Minnesotans to lighten their grip so as to pay more attention to what’s happening. This has to do with preventing abuse and harm at the state level, but also to potentially wake up to one’s own life and realize the beauty being missed out on because we’re too focused on an athletic club.

What say you?