ATLANTA — A million protesters took to the streets of Brazil, angry that basic services have gone unmet even while their country has managed to find billions to spend on the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
This is a message that should resonate around the world.
From Russia, where they've committed an obscene amount of money (a staggering $51 billion at last count) for the Sochi Olympics next winter, to Jacksonville, Fla., where the city may have to shut down neighborhood libraries because of budget cuts but committed tens of millions of dollars to put up massive new video boards in its NFL stadium.
Seriously, it's time for everyone to rise up.
Follow the lead of the people of Brazil (minus the violence and vandalism, of course) and shout an emphatic "No!" the next time someone wants to build a new stadium or arena with tax dollars. Not until the potholes on the way to those venues are fixed. Not until our schools are improved. Not until we have more parks and playgrounds.
"Priorities seem out of whack," said Douglas Turco, an associate academic dean in global studies at Arcadia University near Philadelphia, who has published more than 40 books and articles on major sporting events.
Right in my own backyard, the city of Atlanta is pushing forward with plans to build a $1 billion retractable roof stadium, even though it already has a perfectly suitable domed stadium, the Georgia Dome, that's barely two decades old.
While the NFL Falcons are putting up the bulk of the money — an estimated $800 million — the city's cut will be at least $200 million. Of course, the project comes with all the usual hollow promises: that a new stadium will help revitalize the downtrodden neighborhood right next to the sparkling new stadium.
We've heard that before.
When Atlanta constructed the main stadium for the 1996 Olympics, which was converted to baseball and is now known as Turner Field, it was supposed to spark development in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. While a few areas around the Ted have improved — there are rows and rows of attractive townhouses northeast of the stadium, for instance — the main road that runs just beyond the center-field scoreboard is lined mostly with abandoned, boarded-up buildings.
Now, we're being sold the same bill of goods with another new stadium.
Not buying it.
Instead of just grumbling over a few beers about the folly of tearing down the Georgia Dome long before it's time, the people of Atlanta should look to South America for their inspiration. Tell the powers-that-be — right outside their windows — that they want a safer environment for their children, better public transportation, a commitment to completing projects such as the Beltline (an ambitious series of trails and light-rail lines that would encircle the inner city) before they build another new stadium.
You know, money that would actually make the city — the ENTIRE city — a better place to live. Something that's more than just a playground for 70,000 football fans a few Sundays each fall.
But, for some reason, there's been little outrage in Atlanta, or most of the other cities that have built new venues in recent years. Billionaire team owners and in-their-pocket politicians have become the equivalent or slick carnival barkers, persuading a gullible audience (a.k.a. the taxpayers) that they'll somehow be living in a second-class city if they don't have the biggest, newest, fanciest stadium.
And the people, for some reason, keep going along.
Well, shame on us for choosing the shiniest stone in the counter instead of something that might actually make our lives better.
"When people offer the counterpoint that we could be investing in other things instead of sports, well, oftentimes those others things aren't as alluring and don't have the same magnetism as sports does," Turco said. "You've got tens of thousands of people who are willing to spend almost anything to support their team and identify with their team. ... That's what they're called fanatics. They do not behave rationally. Economists have tried to understand sports consumers' behavior for years. Inevitably, they just scratch their heads and say, 'Why do they do this?'"
Now, along comes Brazil to offer a different perspective.
While the initial protests were sparked by a hike in bus and subway fares, the movement quickly mushroomed to cover a wide range of grievances, including the massive amounts of money earmarked for the world's two biggest sporting events.
Next summer, that country will put on the World Cup, a monthlong, 32-nation tournament to crown the champion of soccer. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro will become the first South American city to the host the Olympics. The combined bill for those two events will likely exceed $30 billion, covering projects such as the $500 million renovation of Rio's main stadium, Maracana, even though it already received a significant face-lift before the 2007 Pan American Games.
"We need better education, hospitals and security — not billions spent on the World Cup," said Sandra Amalfe, who marched with her 16-year-old daughter in Sao Paulo.
Brazil is currently hosting the Confederations Cup, an eight-nation prep event for the World Cup. While the matches have largely been unaffected by the protests, and governing body FIFA insists the tournament won't be called off, someone unfurled a banner outside Maracana before Spain's 10-0 victory over Tahiti on Thursday.
"We want hospitals and schools in FIFA standards," it said.
Or, better yet, why don't the folks at FIFA and the International Olympic Committee require less of their host countries, instead of rewarding those that are willing to spend more than the next guy?
England, a nation with plenty of iconic soccer stadiums already in place, bid for the 2018 World Cup. It finished dead last in the voting, losing out to a Russian bid that includes plans for at least nine new facilities.
The U.S. was thought to be the favorite for the 2022 Cup, with a proposal that included only stadiums that already were in place, some of them essentially brand new. But Qatar was picked as the host, with a plan that also includes building nine new stadiums (which come with the additional cost of having to be cooled because of the brutal summer temperatures in the Middle East).
The message from those two votes was clear: If you build it — and essentially bankrupt yourself in the process — we will come.
Well, enough's enough.
It's time for all of us to take to the streets.