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Political Football

Michael J. Ring

There has been a sustained outcry in the Boston media, and even in this newspaper ["Speaker Finneran's Fumble," Nov. 24], over the prospect of the New England Patriots leaving Foxboro for Hartford. Local business leaders, sportswriters, and fans have displayed reactions ranging from bitter disappointment to crazed hysteria. The villain of this saga, according to Patriots' boosters, is Massachusetts' Speaker of the House, Thomas M. Finneran, D-Mattapan.

It is somewhat disappointing to see that the Patriots, barring a change of heart from the Connecticut Legislature, will be heading south. But the level of delirium displayed by many of the extreme fans is ludicrous. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will get along just fine without the Patriots. And Patriots' owner Robert Kraft, not Speaker Finneran, is the one who's culpable for the Patriots' leaving.

The Patriots provide some employment, some tax revenue, and some sense of civic pride to the Commonwealth. But their contribution to the state is not worth the $350-million welfare check that Governor John Rowland, R-Conn., appears happy to write to Kraft. The jobs at Foxboro Stadium are part-time and low-paying. Surely the government can do better with its limited resources than to underwrite employment for poorly paid beer vendors for ten Sundays a year. The Commonwealth should work with business to insure Massachusetts remains a leader in the computer, biotechnology, and financial service sectors. These are attractive industries which attract an educated, well-paid work force, and their contributions to tax revenue are much greater than a that of a football team.

Some argue that any drain on the Commonwealth's financial resources is offset by the team's contribution to regional pride. But traditionally the Patriots have ranked fourth among local sports fans' loyalties. They are not the Red Sox, whose bumbling lack of success over the years has given the team a certain charm. They are not the Celtics or Bruins, teams that have hoisted banners to the rafters of the Garden. Historically, the Patriots stink.

I grew up in a town 15 miles from Foxboro. You might expect such a place to be the heart of Patriot nation. It is not. In the early 1990s, when the Patriots were consistently the worst team in the AFC East, hardly a soul could care about their fate. There is only interest now because the Patriots have fielded successful teams for several years running. But when their winning ways cease, the fair weather fans will look elsewhere.

We must remember as well that the Patriots are only a sports team. They are not one of the educational or cultural institutions that make Massachusetts a special state. This scenario is hardly equivalent to MIT picking up and moving to Nashua, or the Museum of Fine Arts heading to Providence. A professional sports franchise has only a fraction of the value of world-class cultural and educational institutions.

Turning to the political fallout, I wish to applaud Speaker Finneran for his courageous stand against corporate welfare. His vision, though unpopular, was right for Massachusetts. The House of Representatives was more than willing to spend $57 million on infrastructure improvements in and around the stadium and the town of Foxboro. This is in addition to the $30 million spent this decade to improve vehicular and pedestrian flow around the stadium. But the nearly $90 million in state aid wasn't enough for Kraft. He wanted the state to buy land on which a new stadium would be built, which would have then be leased back to Kraft on sweetheart terms. The team would even have had an option to buy the land without paying for any increase in its assessment. The House, quite rightly, was unwilling to accept this dubious proposal.

The Commonwealth should not act as a land bank for profitable businesses. Yet that is exactly what Kraft and his political allies wanted the Commonwealth to do. Contrary to some portrayals in the media, the Patriots are profitable at Foxboro Stadium. They just aren't profitable enough to satisfy their owner's greed. Imagine if the Commonwealth had agreed to this land deal. Would the state then be obligated to clear a block of land in the financial district, then just donate the land to Fidelity so the company could build a new skyscraper? Or would the state have to acquire land for MIT should the Institute look to expand its property holdings toward Central Square? The latter two organizations are much more important to this state then the Patriots; yet they do not receive the help Kraft is seeking.

Who are the losers in this prospective move? The people of Massachusetts may endure some nominal losses. But the people bearing the disproportionate burden of the move are the people of Connecticut, and specifically, the people of Hartford. The capital of Connecticut is a depressed city, more of an urban wasteland than a viable community. Hartford's schools are among the worst in the nation. A full one percent of Hartford's high school sophomores showed mastery on the four Connecticut Academic Performance Tests, and the average SAT score in Hartford for the Class of 1996 was a robust 777.

Hartford is not a vibrant place to live. Football will be far from a panacea for Hartford's ills. The state is going to spend $350 million on a new stadium for Kraft out of taxpayer money; Kraft's contributions to the larger project, in the form of a new hotel and entertainment complex, will be a fraction of the stadium's cost. This deal is going to soak the taxpayers of Connecticut.

Several other cities have recently attracted NFL franchises, hoping to either recussitate an economically dead city or instill civic pride into some Third World burg. So let's take a look around the country. Did moving the Raiders to Oakland solve that city's problems? Absolutely not. In fact, the taxpayers of Oakland will cough up $16 million this year to service the debt on stadium improvements. Nashville has a football team. Does that make them a world-class city? It is preposterous to argue Nashville is anything beyond a two-bit haven for rotten musicians. Meanwhile, Houston, the city that lost its football team to Nashville, is one of the preeminent commercial centers in the entire nation.

Life goes on without a football team. Massachusetts will do just fine without the Patriots. It can divert time and resources to solving the education and health care problems in the state. Unfortunately, the people of Connecticut are not so lucky.