Saturday, July 19, 2003

Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and former Presidential candidate, has spent his career taking on nearly everyone connected to either corporate America or big-time national politics.

Now Nader has a new set of targets: professional and major college sports, and more locally, District Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

One of Nader’s leading causes these days is fighting the proliferation of commercialism and taxpayer subsidies in sports, and he has inserted himself squarely into the District’s efforts to regain a major league baseball team. Operating through the League of Fans (, a 2-year-old District-based sports watchdog group founded and funded by Nader, the 69-year-old author and advocate has railed against Williams’ $338.7million stadium financing bill.

That largesse of public money, Nader argues, siphons funds away from needed public services such as affordable housing, libraries, health care and education. The library issue in particular has fueled Nader’s rage as the stadium bill reached D.C. Council offices around the same time as Williams sought to cut the operating budget of the D.C. library system for the fifth time in two years.

“This is very serious business because of the tax factor, and because we have a mayor who is trying to turn this wonderful city into an entertainment center instead of focusing on core needs,” Nader said.

But Nader realizes Williams is not acting unprompted on the baseball effort. Major League Baseball has made no secret of its desire to extract as much public stadium financing as possible, so as to ensure a top selling price for the Montreal Expos. Nader wrote MLB Commissioner Bud Selig last week asking for an end to the current relocation shakedown.

“If Major League Baseball is to come here and reap the benefits of our large population and media market, and loyal sports fans, it will not be because Washington, D.C., caved in to your demands or those of the committee,” Nader wrote. “It will be on our terms and not at the expense of the real life public necessities of our city which are already facing serious budget pressures.”

Nader has periodically dabbled in sports advocacy the last three decades. In the 1970s, he had a short-lived group called FANS which, similarly to now, lobbied for justice, equality and safety in sports, as well as an end to public subsidies for sports facilities. More recently, he was an active voice against the ultimately failed 1999 attempt to relocate the New England Patriots to Hartford, Conn.

The League of Fans effort last year received its first major dose of national publicity when Nader wrote NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Nader sought a formal review of league officiating procedures after the Sacramento Kings lost the 2002 Western Conference title in questionable fashion to the Los Angeles Lakers. The effort seemed particularly Quixotic, even for Nader. But since millions of basketball fans also think Stern sometimes orchestrates NBA events for maximum league benefit, those suspicions were at least raised for broader national discussion.

The key question, however, is whether anyone is really listening. Nader has a history of successes, including playing a role in the development of many new safety features on myriad consumer products, securing better warning labels on numerous drugs, and fighting for an enlargement of the Freedom of Information Act.

But the District baseball issue is so far providing a tough sell for Nader and his advocates. Williams has made landing a team a priority of his administration, and the current stadium funding bill relies heavily on user fees or taxes on tickets and concessions that would not exist without the stadium.

The city last week also received a major boost in its baseball efforts after Arlington County officials all but killed the rival Northern Virginia bid by asking for the jurisdiction to be removed from any ballpark site consideration.

And even those most frustrated with MLB’s protracted, secretive relocation process, including D.C. Council member Jack Evans, remain steady in their desire to build a ballpark largely with public funds. Evans has, of course, demanded MLB first commit to Washington, but that is nowhere near refusing to build the stadium altogether.

“There is no reason to believe this particular effort of Mr. Nader’s has any real traction,” said Bill Hall, director with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “No one has raised his concerns to me, and really, he has created a false choice. The choice is not libraries or a ballpark. The choice is a ballpark or no ballpark.”

Nader, of course, vows to press on undeterred.

“If this [baseball] deal continues to go through, [MLB and the District] have no idea the opposition that’s coming,” Nader said. “There are a great many people active and engaged against this.”

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