Sports Aren't Going to Save Detroit

The Tigers are the latest team tasked with saving Motown

By Josh Alper
|  Wednesday, Sep 23, 2009  |  Updated 4:01 PM CDT
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Sports Aren't Going to Save Detroit

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The recession has touched all parts of American life, and, for the most part, the media has done a good job of highlighting the way that different cities, towns and regions have had life changed by the downturn in the economy. One place where it's been tough for them is sports, though. Sure, there's a bone thrown here and there to layoffs in front offices and tighter payrolls for players but you're still talking about incredibly wealthy owners trimming fat to protect their own profit margins or incredibly wealthy athletes making $5 million instead of $6 million. 

The need to write something, anything, about the recession is still strong, however, which is why sportswriters seem to keep coming back to Detroit. The Motor City is a regular locale for stories about everything that's gone wrong economically, with the collapse of Chrysler, Ford and GM serving as convenient and poignant shorthand for the plight of blue collar workers and the middle class in today's climate. 

We had stories about how the Red Wings were trying to win the Stanley Cup for Detroit, about how Michigan State was trying to win the NCAA title for the struggling folks, about how the Pistons signed a pair of expensive free agents to give the city a lift and, right now, there's probably some scribe slaving away on a story about how Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has given laid-off auto workers a reason to smile through the foreclosure notices. Heck, there were even stories about how the 0-16 Lions made life harder on the blighted city.

That only leaves the Tigers, but they're no strangers to these kinds of stories. Their 2006 World Series run was pitched as a balm for all that ailed Motown well before the whole country joined them in the economic doldrums. Now that they're back on top of the AL Central, they're getting the treatment once again via a cover story in Sports Illustrated that decrees they are "The Righteous Franchise." And, yes, there's a sick irony to a magazine known for jinxing its cover subjects choosing to make Detroit their choice this week.

The article, by Lee Jenkins, praises owner Mike Ilitch for spending money to revitalize his roster while the crumbling economy foretold a drop in attendance, sponsorships and other sources of revenue. It also credits the city's struggles with inspiring the team, and how the team has "lifted a city."

They were also 48--26 at Comerica Park, a record they attribute to the overwhelming responsibility they feel playing in front of their home fans, many of whom are presumably using what little discretionary income they have to watch the team play. In his first spring training meeting manager Jim Leyland told his players, "People are going to be spending some of their last dollars to come to these games, and we need to give them our best effort. This is not the year not to run out a ground ball."

It's hard to see why Jenkins feels that watching a man being paid to run out a ground ball run out a ground ball is something that lessens the very real concerns of feeding your family and paying the mortgage. Sure, it feels good to see your team do well and watching sports is an excellent escape from all of life's problems, but haven't we seen enough of these articles to know how trivial and silly it is to equate the health of a city with its sports teams? 

Teams from Detroit or around Michigan could win every trophy offered in every sport for the next five years and it isn't going to do a thing for the economic health of the city. Everyone knows this and yet we keep seeing these articles mistaking temporary smiles for what the city really needs and trivializing the very real struggles of the people trying to keep moving forward among a backdrop that keeps getting worse no matter how well the teams do.  

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.

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