Veteran consumer advocate takes on big-time sports
NEW YORK—On the wall of Ralph Nader's office hangs a color portrait of baseball legend Lou Gehrig, an old-fashioned hero who seems to rebuke so much of today's sports world -- the sex-abuse and drug scandals, labor strife, rampant commercialization.
Gehrig, who set a standard for durability while playing 2,130 consecutive games over 15 seasons, is the only sports idol acknowledged by Nader, himself a kind of "Iron Horse" in his chosen playing field, America's consumer movement.
Since 1965, when he lit into the U.S. auto industry for marketing cars "unsafe at any speed," Nader has taken on issues ranging from deceptive advertising to water pollution to nursing home fraud. Now, at 77, he's channeling an increasing share of his attention and anger to problems across the gamut of U.S. sports -- the major pro leagues, the NCAA, even youth sports.
"It's spinning out of control," says Nader. "It's profit at all costs, win at all costs, and often it's damaging the health of the athletes."
Throughout his career, which has been punctuated by four presidential campaigns, Nader has helped form scores of public interest groups, including one called the League of Fans that advocates for sweeping changes in the sports world.
Items on its agenda include ridding youth sports of tyrannical coaches, discouraging taxpayer funding of stadiums, promoting broader participation in sports at schools and colleges, and outlawing fighting in pro hockey. Many of its concerns are being addressed in a 12-part manifesto that's on the verge of completion.
In a sense, League of Fans is a misnomer. Nader envisions it as a think tank, watchdog and advocacy group, rather than a membership-based organization.
"Fans are hard to band together," says Nader, who gave up on a fan-based initiative in the late 1970s when he could entice only about 1,100 people to pay dues.
Fans are better-informed about sports than voters are about public policy, and can become outraged by various slights, Nader said. "But their anger is very abbreviated when it's kickoff time or the umpire says `Play ball.'"
In a phone interview, Nader didn't sound overly optimistic about forcing the major pro leagues to be less exploitive.
"They have anti-trust exemptions -- they can engage in collusion," he said. "They can wine and dine politicians, and give them special seats in their suites, and in the meantime it's costing a family $300 or $400 to go to a game."
Professor Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economics expert at Smith College, questioned whether a Nader-inspired consumer movement could make much headway in influencing the major leagues' policies or spreading the concept of community-owned teams.
"Fans love their sports as they are," he wrote in an email. "Owners are too well situated politically."
At the college level, Nader has been among the legion of critics of the football Bowl Championship Series system, and believes public pressure could force changes before long to increase fairness and give more teams a chance to gain spots in the most lucrative bowl games.
He's also joined a chorus of calls for the NCCA to adjust its policies on athletic scholarships, so athletes who leave their teams for injury or other reasons could be sure of remaining on scholarship as long as their academic work is adequate.
"The NCCA keeps saying, `We're on it' and it keeps getting worse," Nader said. "The players have become gladiators in the groves of higher education instead of being students and playing athletics on the side."
Nader had expressed support for the Drake Group, a coalition of college faculty and staff seeking to defend academic integrity as the college sports industry grows ever more powerful. The group's president-elect, University of New Haven management professor Allen Sack, has suggested that -- in the absence of major reforms -- the NCAA might face efforts by Congress to end its tax-exempt status.
Sack, who played football at Notre Dame, is a fan of Nader.
"It always helps to have someone out there shouting in the wind, getting a lot of grief for saying things that make people feel uncomfortable," Sack said. "They say politics is the art of the possible, and Ralph doesn't seem bothered by that adage."
Nader believes the League of Fans can make progress with at least some of its agenda by linking up with specific sports and fitness initiatives unfolding across the country.
"The phys-ed and anti-obesity movement can get much stronger -- it's got to be more insistent about getting more people into participatory sports at all ages," he said. "What pro sports has done is glued millions of people to the TV screen while their weight increases and their cardiovascular system deteriorates."
He also rails against the expansion of high-powered, high-pressure youth leagues in which some boys and girls now practice and play their chosen sport virtually year-round.
"It's become a business," he said. "They've taken the joy out of it."
Nader isn't an ardent hockey fan, but he was dismayed by the recent series of New York Times articles about Derek Boogaard, the National Hockey League enforcer who died in May of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. The Times reported that Boogaard, who'd been groomed since adolescence to be the fist-fighter for his teams, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain ailment related to Alzheimer's disease that is caused by repeated blows to the head.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says there's not enough data yet to draw conclusions about the brain ailment, but Nader says the league shouldn't wait to ban fighting.
"It's got to be stopped," he said. They're marketing sadism."
The man recruited by Nader as sports policy director of the League of Fans is Ken Reed, a former sports marketing consultant who became disenchanted with tasks such as helping owners sell stadium suites and club seats.
Reed notes that the United States, unlike many other nations, has no sports ministry or other government agency that helps set sports policy.
"Our sports policy basically developed by the sports powers, the owners, and those policies filter down through college, high school, the youth level," he said.
Encouraging activism among fans may be difficult, Reed acknowledges.
"We need to increase awareness and even when we do, there's a lot of pushback," says Reed. "Fans say, `Don't bring reality into my sports life.'"
While Reed played varsity baseball and basketball at the University of Denver, Nader was a less-accomplished athlete -- he played intramural baseball in high school.
However, Nader listened to New York Yankees games on the radio while growing up in Winsted, Conn., and follows both baseball and football.
His favorite National Football League team is the Green Bay Packers -- as much for the fact that they are community-owned as for their current success on the field. But his list of sports heroes is short.
"The one sports figure who really had an influence on me is Lou Gehrig," Nader said. "He represented stamina, he represented working through adversity. He was a very decent guy."
League of Fans: http://leagueoffans.org/
Drake Group: http://www.thedrakegroup.org/
David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP