Commentary

Unfollow the Money

Updated: August 8, 2013, 11:27 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Newark Jeff MacGregor/ESPN.com


Money trouble.

One symptom of chronic American cynicism is that every story in every news cycle reads like a story about money. A-Rod? Money. Manziel? Money. Politics? Money. Congress? Money. White House? Money.

Sale of the Washington Post? Follow the money.

The consequence for sports fans or sports writers is to see the games they once loved turned into another kind of class warfare, in which our local slugger steps to the plate, earning $62,000 per at-bat with four years remaining on his contract. His other numbers don't matter much anymore. Same with the strong-armed, weak-thinking college QB whose $25 autograph wasn't a money grab, but -- paging Dr. Freud -- only a repudiation of a rich father's money.

In any case, middle-class skeptics sour into cynics until the games themselves are mostly lost to us. Every minute of millionaire play, every extortionate ticket increase, every stadium boondoggle, every excessive concession becomes an inventory of our bitterness, an occasion for resentment or anger or disappointment. All that old joy held hostage behind a wall of money.

So I went to Newark, where there is no money at all.

*  *  *

Back in Manhattan you can see the money rushing past; feel it, hear it roaring through the streets like you've got your ear to a pipeline. All the money in the world comes and goes there, uptown and downtown, Wall Street and Times Square, good times and bad. A blizzard of it. Thin on the ground in some spots, sure, but in other neighborhoods it drifts so high on the sidewalks you have to kick your way through it. And it's always moving.

[+] EnlargeArena bar
Jeff MacGregor/ESPN.comThere is space available in downtown Newark.

Step off the train in Newark, walk out of that magnificent old train station day or night, and the opposite seems true. The local economy is stranded, busted, stuck in time, the same exhausted money changing between the same frustrated hands for the past 40 years.

At Broad and Market, there are always plenty of nice folks coming and going, music everywhere, and the sidewalks are lively at every hour. But it's worth wondering how much true opportunity there is here, how much new capital to float people's dreams? How much money makes it down to the old triplexes on Chestnut or Malvern or South Street? Back up the street at the Prudential Center, the New York Liberty tip off against the Connecticut Sun at 6.

Maybe the arena does what people hope it will: draw more money downtown. Money attracts money. And new money means new opportunity. Jobs. But the new Joe's Crab Shack and the new Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and the new Courtyard Marriott all hang by a very slender thread. The Nets are gone. The Liberty move back across the Hudson to Madison Square Garden next year. And as of this morning the Devils are going under.

The Arena, a not-great bar a block off the wrong corner of the stadium, closed at last. And the neighborhood in every direction still feels provisional.

What we should want to create for one another here and everywhere is the chance for everyone to thrive on their home ground. And even a little means a lot around Broad and Market. But how do we do it?

*  *  *

The best thing to me about the WNBA is how happy it makes its small audience, how deeply appreciative of their attention and enthusiasm the players are of the fans and the fans are of the players. There's no distance, actual or metaphorical, between them. Courtside seats for this game were going for $35.

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesCappie Pondexter leads the Liberty in points and assists per game this season.

Up and back, Cappie Pondexter dishing sly passes delights the crowd, and the game feels uncluttered and deliberate and plays on the floor as it did in the days of Fort Wayne versus Sheboygan. People love it. That Ms. Pondexter's WNBA salary is capped at about what she'd earn as a midmarket IT manager seems not to bother anyone, including her.

What's it actually worth to play basketball for a living? To hit a baseball? (Or to write about hitting one?) Or flip it, make it easy. How much do you think Alex Rodriguez would earn if he couldn't hit a baseball?

That money improves and ruins everything is what forever unites and divides us.

In sports, at its worst, the money overwhelms whatever symbolic purpose or importance the games were meant to convey. And sports reflect the condition of the larger culture.

*  *  *

A remedy for all this might be a quick reading of a small book by the late historian Tony Judt, "Ill Fares The Land." It's a thoughtful reminder of the necessity of compassion and empathy and communitarianism and moral imperative even in a "free market" economy. In the meantime, it's symptomatic of our American Condition to define "freedom" as a function primarily of economic freedom, and to conflate capitalism with democracy.

Still, Newark is one of my favorite places. Like Rome, it's a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit. Inextinguishable, even at our own hands.

In the end, Liberty lose by 22.

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