A Pox on Sports Team Owners

Yes, Donald Sterling is a despicable bigot. But Oakland's deadbeat owners are ripping off the public for tens of millions of dollars.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined $2.5 million and banned from the NBA for life this week — and deservedly so — for the racist comments he made recently about African Americans. But Los Angeles, unfortunately, doesn’t have a monopoly on despicable sports team owners. Oakland has two ownership groups that deserve considerable scorn — not because they’re racists, but because they’re extraordinarily wealthy people who are trying to rip off taxpayers for tens of millions of dollars, taking money that could be used to help the poor and keep our neighborhoods safe.

For years we’ve known that the owners of the Oakland A’s — Lew Wolff and John Fisher — have no love for the city that hosts their team. The A’s owners have been trying to leave town for the better part of a decade. But last week we were reminded that they don’t just dislike Oakland, they have open contempt for its citizenry, even though many residents are ardent fans of their ballclub.

Over the past few years, the A’s have pocketed millions of dollars in taxpayer money — about $5 million total — for no good reason. The city and Alameda County desperately need these funds to help pay for social services and public safety programs. But Wolff and Fisher, who are very rich men (Forbes estimates Fisher’s total net worth is about $2.4 billion), have nonetheless decided to confiscate it.

Much of the $5 million came from taxes that the city levies on parking at the Coliseum complex. Fans who park there, whether they’re attending an A’s, Raiders, or Warriors game, or other entertainment, pay the tax as part of their parking fee, according to Coliseum Interim Executive Director Deena McClain. But unlike Oakland’s other sports teams, the A’s have decided to collect the tax and then withhold rent payments in the equivalent amount that the team owes the City of Oakland and Alameda County each year.

The A’s owners contend that their lease allows them to do this — and the dispute over these funds is scheduled to go before an arbitrator later this year — but the team’s legal argument is not only weak, it’s ethically bankrupt. A’s fans are paying this parking tax when they attend games, and the team is effectively keeping the proceeds — funds that the cash-strapped city and county desperately need, and should be receiving. According to Coliseum board member Nate Miley, who is also a county supervisor, the A’s owners also want to keep taking these funds each year as part of any future lease agreement, and want the city and county to agree to let them keep the $5 million they’ve already pocketed. You read that right: The A’s billionaire owners, whose team plays in a stadium paid for with public funds, also want to pocket the taxes paid by their fans.


But as bad as that is, the über-rich owners of the Golden State Warriors may even be worse. Last week, we learned that team owners Joe Lacob (estimated net worth: $325 million) and Peter Guber (estimated net worth: $400 million) said they that when they move their team to San Francisco in 2018, they plan to stick Oakland and Alameda County taxpayers with a $62 million bill.

Under the Warriors’ contract with the publicly owned Oracle Arena, the team pays $7.4 million annually to the city and county as reimbursement for publicly funded upgrades made to the facility in the 1990s at the team’s request. But when the Warriors leave for San Francisco in four years, the debt from those upgrades will still be about $62 million. And if the Warriors’ owners don’t pay their debt, then city and county taxpayers will have to pick up the tab — or we’ll be forced to sue them to get them to do what’s right.

So why are these wealthy owners trying to screw us over? One word: greed.

After all, it’s not as if the Warriors’ owners can’t afford to pay the $62 million. The team’s owners just spent an estimated $200-plus million to buy land for their new state-of-the-art arena in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district. They also just finished wasting untold millions on their failed proposal to build a new facility on the city’s waterfront. Plus, the new basketball arena likely will cost at least $500 million to build. In other words, $62 million is chump change for men like Lacob and Guber, and yet they intend to force East Bay residents (their own fans!) to pay their bill — when that money could be used to fund preschool, health-care, after-school, and library programs for kids.

Talk about deadbeats.

So what’s the lesson from all this? Being a racist will get you thrown out of sports. But ripping off the public — including your very own fans — is standard operating procedure.

RIP Kill Switches

Last week the smartphone industry displayed once again the power that Big Business wields over US politics. After intense lobbying by the industry in Sacramento, the state Senate narrowly rejected legislation that would have required all cellphones to come equipped with kill switches, which render the devices inoperable when stolen. Law enforcement officials nationwide have pushed hard for kill switch legislation — as have Oakland’s political leaders — because smartphone theft has caused a robbery epidemic. But cellphone makers Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung adamantly oppose mandatory kill switches because stolen phones are a huge boon to industry: Victims must buy new phones when theirs are ripped off. So the next time your phone gets snatched, and you’re helpless to do anything about it, you’ll know whom to blame.


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