Heard Off the Street: NFL blitzes our other priorities

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This week's sermon is taken from the text of Thomas Paine, whose essays inspired the patriots who fought and won the American Revolution: "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly."

Mr. Paine, who history indicates may have appreciated a good tailgate, was of course talking about liberty, not another fundamental freedom that Americans celebrate this hallowed Sunday when the Steelers commence their 2012-13 campaign.

There is no shortage of economic indicators bearing witness to the abundant esteem we bestow on the National Football League. Consider the wages that the speedy, beefy practitioners of the game command.

The cumulative payroll of the 32-team NFL is estimated at about $3.6 billion. Our national will to support this free enterprise -- which includes extending generous public subsidies for the coliseums the empire's gladiators play in -- expresses what is important to us as a people.

If our priorities were different, that $3.6 billion would be allocated in other ways.

Pennsylvania's transportation network -- with its 5,000 structurally deficient bridges, debilitated highways and shrinking public transit systems -- needs $3.5 billion in annual funding, according to a 2010 PennDOT report. One year's worth of the NFL payroll also would be enough to pay for the federally mandated improvements in the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's stormwater control system.

On a smaller scale, the $111 million payroll of the average NFL team compares to what Pennsylvania's share of federal transportation dollars was reduced by when Congress recently approved a two-year highway funding bill.

Over two head-traumatizing seasons, the NFL payroll would provide more than the $5 billion the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates is needed to dredge Eastern seaports so it can accommodate the supersized ocean cargo ships that soon will ply the expanded Panama Canal. Even considering the inevitable cost overruns that plague Corps projects, there would be enough left over to make a significant dent in a $3.8 billion backlog of projects to rehabilitate or replace crumbling locks and dams on the nation's rivers.

Evidently, the economic benefits of building a more efficient waterways system -- including good paying construction jobs, taking trucks off highways, and boosting exports of grain and other commodities -- are not as attractive as the benefits of providing for the handsomely paid professionals on NFL rosters.

Thus is it possible for New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees to command what Forbes estimates is a five-year, $100 million contract. Or for the Denver Broncos, the Steelers opponent today, to extend a $96 million, five-year deal to rehabilitating quarterback Peyton Manning.

Consider their lesser brethren. When wide receiver Mike Wallace balked at reporting to camp for the mere $2.7 million, one-year deal the Steelers offered him, the Steelers signed fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown to a six-year, $42.5 million contract.

The money showered on this talented professional would have been enough to meet the $40 million, 2009-10 payroll of the Butler Area school district, according to openpagov.org. The $2.5 million in change would be double what the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank receives in federal and state funding annually.

This season, labor unrest threatens to clog our highly esteemed NFL economic engine and jeopardize the integrity of what is -- lest we forget -- a game. Beggared by $9 billion in annual revenue, the NFL has locked out game officials who are seeking to boost the average annual pay officials receive: $149,000, according to the NFL. Never mind that that's enough to pay the wages of two average teachers in the Upper St. Clair School district, according to openpagov.org.

But free enterprise only goes so far.

Earlier this year, fearing that their beloved Vikings would leave the state faster than a civic-minded U.S. corporation moves its headquarters or intellectual property offshore for tax purposes, Minnesota lawgivers approved a plan to build a $975 million new stadium, with taxpayers putting up $498 million and the "we built it" Vikings advancing $477 million. And naysayers snicker that we do not invest in infrastructure.

Lest you think Minnesotans are the exception, consider the voters of Allen, Texas. Three years ago, 63 percent of them approved a $119 million bond issue, proceeds of which were used to build a $60 million playground for the Allen High School football team. The stadium seats 18,000 and features a 38-foot-wide, high-definition video screen. These details were gleamed from an Associated Press account that made it clear school officials proceeded knowing full well they will never recoup their investment.

Not that it's not money well spent, but it's what Port Authority's union workers gave up in concessions over the next four years to avert 560 layoffs and a 35 percent reduction in service.

But, you are bored and the opiate of the masses awaits. Let not uncomfortable thoughts divert you from your meticulously scripted pregame ritual. With the formidable Broncos awaiting, these are, as Mr. Paine said, times that try men's souls.

bizopinion

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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