First, let's all hail Ben Roethlisberger, who led the Steeler Nation out of the football wilderness to the NFL kingdom of champions, despite being handicapped by short receivers. The free market and the people have spoken; he has earned the riches that the Steelers have showered upon him -- $102 million over eight years, including an up-front signing bonus of $25.2 million.
And let's pay proper homage to the benefits that athletics provide to Steeler Region -- tourism dollars that enrich area motels, hotels, restaurants and shops, along with bringing national prestige, replete with Monday Night Football's stunning camera shots of the rivers and the city lights shimmering on a fall night.
All to the good, no debate.
But can we pause among all the sports hoopla to briefly consider the priorities of Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania, and even the state and nation? We are sports-obsessed to the point that other vital needs -- education, infrastructure, health care, working wages -- take a back-row seat to the luxury boxes and sideline pews of sporting events.
Consider, for example, the tax dollars graciously donated by elected state and regional officials, on behalf of the taxpaying citizenry, to athletic facilities. This is money that frees up corporate dollars so the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins can pay player and manager salaries and bonuses. The public largesse to these athletic franchises has been thoroughly documented.
Not to pick on the Steelers, probably the most financially efficient of the big three regional professional sports franchises, but look at the financing of Heinz Field: $123 million of its cost was paid by the company and $158 million by the public via taxes from parking, amusements, entertainment and the Regional Asset District.
And now the Steelers have come seeking yet more taxpayer dollars, an estimated $4 million, or 40 percent of the estimated $10 million cost of a proposed entertainment complex to be built near, yep, Heinz Field.
Did someone say corporate welfare?
While those who support such public expenditures correctly cite the business and tourism and prestige benefits mentioned above, can the well-heeled folks behind this jock mentality look at this city's homeless, at its single-parent families, at its blighted neighborhoods, at its workers who must slalom through such pothole-riddled thoroughfares as Warrington Avenue, and defend these financial policies without a smirk?
How far do we take the trickle-down argument that what's good for athletics is good for the rest of us, that the rising athletic boat will lift the region along with it? The state of Pennsylvania, not just Pittsburgh, has been found to be seriously lagging in tax dollars spent on public education. State universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, are being offered this year a piddling, less-than-inflationary increase in spending of 1.5 percent, which is not even half of the overall 4.2 percent spending increase in Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed budget -- a budget that not only higher education officials believe is woefully inadequate, but that also has been harshly criticized by advocates of the state's elderly and frail.
A recent study by Pitt professor George Dougherty found that the huge majority -- 80.2 percent -- of the 509 cities, boroughs and towns in Steeler Region experienced budget deficits during the five-year period ending in 2005. The problem, Mr. Dougherty understated to the Post-Gazette, "was much bigger than I expected."
Such deficits lead to such problems as cities declaring bankruptcy (er, financial distress), communities going without adequate law enforcement personnel and equipment, public schools trimming expenditures on technology and educational opportunities such as art and music, and deteriorating bridges and roads.
It's a long wish list of needs, certainly much too large to be taken care of by an extravagant athletic salary. But that is not the suggestion here.
Ben Roethlisberger is a superb quarterback. Steeler Nation is fortunate to have found him. He does charitable work for the community. His new pay package is not out of line with those of star athletes in other venues and cities; he is taking what the market will bear. For that matter, neither are the Steelers', nor the Penguins', nor the Pirates' stadium deals out of the ordinary in today's professional sports-city climate.
Rather, the suggestion here is that all of this money, public and private, being heaped upon sports is symptomatic of a society with questionable priorities. It is a society that debates and ponders at length the worth of an individual in terms of public support of welfare and health care and education while barely pausing to reconsider underwriting the business of professional games.
Once upon a time, this sort of debate at the national level was termed guns versus butter. Now it's games versus butter. Something's not right when sports corporations feast on the public dole while many citizens and social programs scramble for crumbs.