Essay by Ed Quillen
Sports – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
SALT LAKE CITY wanted to put itself on the world map with the 2002 Winter Olympics. The games are still three years away, but the Utah capital has already succeeded in a big way — pick up a newspaper from just about anywhere, and the City of the Saints is on the front page.
This publicity, though, probably isn’t quite what the movers and shakers in Salt Lake had in mind when they were awarded the games by the International Olympic Committee. Instead of gushy prose about a high-tech world-class urban mecca set amid some of the world’s finest powdered slopes, news coverage has focused on bribery, corruption, and prostitution.
But there’s another scandal that has gone largely unreported. US West, the Baby Bell that provides local telephone service to much of the Mountain West, recently announced that it will make its promised $5 million donation to the Salt Lake Olympics.
US West is a monopoly. It doesn’t need feel-good institutional advertising in order to attract business. For that matter, in recent years it has had more business than it can handle, forcing people to wait months to get new telephones, all because it hasn’t invested enough in expanding its capacity.
Here’s a company that says it can’t afford to provide the modern telephone service it heavily promotes to its rural customers — features like call-waiting, caller ID and distinctive ringing. Yet it can still spend $5 million just to put the five intertwined Olympic rings on its billing envelopes?
Now, there’s a scandal: A monopoly extracts money from its underserved customers and squanders it on promoters who use it for, among other things, hiring whores for visiting royalty. Yet our sports-mad mainstream media ignore it.
In Utah’s neighbor state to the east, Colorado voters in 1972 had the good sense to expel the 1976 Winter Olympics. But that was the last time Colorado and its cheerleader media exhibited any sense about big-time sports.
Today, the best-paid person on the state payroll in Colorado is not the governor, nor indeed anyone with real responsibilities for health, safety or education. It is Gary Barnett, the recently hired head football coach at the University of Colorado who makes about $1 million a year.
Ask an athletic booster why this is so, and you’ll hear that wealthy alumni are more likely to donate to the college when it has a winning football team. In other words, this institution graduates people, presumably educated people, who care more about the football team’s record than about Nobel laureates or MacArthur Genius Grant recipients.
Now there’s a scandal that cries out for investigation — why are people with such obvious mental deficiencies being issued diplomas at all? But the Denver media will never raise that question — they’re too busy jumping on the Bronco Superbowl bandwagon.
WITH AN IMPEACHMENT in Washington and a new governor in Colorado selling corporate sponsorships for his inauguration, Denver’s newspapers put their energy into special sections of Bronco lore. For months, the TV stations pre-empted regular programming to run specials about the Broncos — which has been about the only time they’ve done any local production beyond their regular newscasts.
They sent anchors to Miami, and joined with the newspapers in sponsoring parades and pep-rallies while issuing juvenile taunts to other cities: “We’re going to the Super Bowl and you aren’t.”
Denver has trouble sheltering its homeless, but it has no trouble coming up with $250 million to build a new stadium for the Broncos. That seems scandalous, just like the CU focus on football, just like US West wasting the money it extracted from us.
Perhaps other parts of the country can handle big-time sports in an appropriate way. But in this vast and empty time zone, we’ve gotten starstruck and lost all sense of priority. Our institutions, from utility regulation to higher education to mainstream media, haven’t been strong enough to resist sports mania.
Not that we should give up sports altogether. We could stick to our own pursuits — rodeo, river-running, pack-burro racing, rock-drilling, hang-gliding, ice-climbing — that sort of thing. We can handle those.
It’s just this world-class stuff that overwhelms us.
Ed Quillen is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). He lives in Salida where, among other things, he assists in the publication of the magazine you’re reading right now.
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