Friday, May 30, 2008

Why Sports Promotions are Insulting

In reading this week's e-bulletin from Autism Speaks, I see that "Frozen Ropes of Long Island, a premier baseball and softball training academy, and WFAN, the New York Mets radio station, are supporting Autism Speaks through a unique promotion, 'Strikeouts for Autism.' Every time a Mets pitcher strikes out a batter for the rest of the season, Frozen Ropes will donate $25 to Autism Speaks. WFAN will announce the totals at the end of the broadcast of each game and invite people to visit the Autism Speaks web site for more information."

This makes great PR for Frozen Ropes, WFAN, and the New York Mets. And it essentially boils down to these entities exploiting Autism and those afflicted with it - with minimal investment of money, time, or care - for their own gain.

Let's break down the numbers. This Sunday, Johan Santana is the scheduled starting pitcher for the Mets. Johan Santana makes
$16,984,216.00 in salary this year. Through eleven starts, he has averaged just under six strikeouts per outing. Therefore, if he meets his average for the season, Autism Speaks stands to earn $150, and possibly a little extra from people referred to the site by WFAN.

Meanwhile, Santana, regardless of his performance or strikeout total, is guaranteed to earn $104,840.84. This is his average salary per game over a 162 game season. Given that he will at most appear in 36 games this season, it could be argued that he is paid $471,783.78 per appearance.

Santana would therefore have to strike out 18,871 LA Dodgers that day to earn as much for Autism as he earns for throwing the ball.

The record for strikeouts in a career is held by Nolan Ryan, who struck out 5,714 over a span of 27 seasons. Earning a rate of $25/strikeout, Ryan would have had to continue his established rate of strikeouts for a total of 89 seasons in order to strike out enough batters to earn as much for Autism as Santana will earn this Sunday.

And that is not even to mention the earnings of Santana's employer, billionaire chairman of Sterling Equities Fred Wilpon, who purchased the Mets for $391 million and will dole out $121 million in player salary while still turning a profit of millions this coming season. Or of WFAN and their parent company, CBS, which reported $3.7 billion in revenue during the first quarter of 2008.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury openly wept with grief on national television, expressing between sobs the empathy he felt for the children of New Orleans, imagining what it would be like should anything so horrific befall his own children. He pledged, and delivered, $1 Million to relief funds. It is impossible to say how much his emotion inspired others to contribute, or at the very least, care.

Joe Horn, then of the New Orleans Saints, was in the Superdome during the aftermath of the Hurricane: providing hands-on assistance to the sick and dying, attempting to encourage and lift the spirits of those around him, and speaking loudly to the press at every opportunity to tell the world what was going on and challenge the government to take action.

Serena Williams suggested that maybe she would donate $50 for each ace she served in her next tennis tournament...

The world collectively groaned and rolled their eyes. After all, how could she be so out of touch with the drastic nature of the situation, and not recognize the need for more concerted action?

I will not attempt to compare Autism to Katrina, other than to say that clearly the world is not grasping the urgency or the degree of concern that Autism requires at this time.

The largest Autism awareness organization in the country is happy to promote an enterprise in which millionaires play ball games for billionaires and toss a few crumbs to our children with Autism, as if they are trained seals begging along the foul lines. The rest of the nation watches the show and applauds. Most go home. A few visit the Autism Speaks site and donate. Society marches on unaffected.

I'd like to propose that the next time our local sports teams host an "Autism Awareness Night," we make it a night of true awareness, encouraging those who arrive at the park to do the following:
  1. Calculate the amount of time and money you spend each year on sports. Decide on a percentage of that money and - more importantly - time you could instead donate to Autism.
  2. Use your new free time to volunteer at a local school or non-profit organization servicing people with Autism.
  3. If you know someone with Autism, see if there is a respectful way you can contribute to that person's life, whether it be as a friend, advocate, or caregiver.
  4. If you know a family with a child or adult dependent with Autism, reach out to that family. Most people cannot fathom the degree to which families feel ostracized from their community.
  5. If you own a business or are in a decision-making position for one, or if you have the ear of a decision-maker, work to find a way to include a person with Autism in your workforce. Being a part of such a community can provide immeasurable quality to a person with Autism's life, and also provide his or her coworkers with more "awareness" than any night at the ballpark.
  6. And of course there is always the obligatory stuff about writing or calling politicians and telling them to support more paid social services for individuals with Autism and to mandate insurance companies to pay for Autism-related services such as ABA therapy.
Promotions such as "Strikeouts for Autism" lead us down a rabbit hole: a place where fans, players, franchise owners, broadcasters, and media conglomerates alike can pat themselves on the back for their participation in a cause.

The fans feel good about supporting their team when they hear about the team's charitable activities, which permits them to enjoy their time at the park or in front of the TV with clean conscience.

The players feel good that they have a convenient method for giving back to the community, one which poses no threat to their odd position as global icons, and unfathomably wealthy celebrities.

The franchise owners sleep better at night, and have more fodder for staking claims that they are an important part of the fabric of the community, which always comes in handy when it's time to demand a new publicly-funded facility.

The broadcasters get to feel warm and fuzzy inside as they list off the latest totals, and employ their finely honed skills of elocution to inspire huzzahs over it.

The media conglomerates purchase always-valuable good faith from the public, in exchange for the same cash outlay they spend on paper clips in a day.

It is a tidy little circle of sanctimony and self-congratulation, one that benefits many.

Unfortunately, and somewhat inconveniently, it is a circle that excludes those for whom it claims to exist in the first place.

My message to WFAN, CBS, the Wilpons, Mets, and others who like to engage in these sorts of stunts: Thanks, but no thanks.


Sheri said...

I hear what you are saying, and agree almost whole-heartedly, except for the fact that I believe something is better than nothing, and unfortunately, all of these people are in it for the money.

When you were talking about Katrina, I was remembering the fundraising that was going on there and also after 911. Remember the telethons with all the stars urging us to open our pockets??? I gave but I kept on thinking, "you know, George Clooney, my husband is pulling in like 40K ish a year. You probably made at least 20 million after taxes. Why aren't YOU giving instead of urging those of us who don't have 5 homes and all that money???" It is a feel good thing for these people.

The biggest hope one can have is that someone out there who has never heard of autism will learn about it and perhaps do one of the things suggested.

ted said...

You could very well be right about something being better than nothing Sheri. But I can't help but think that this is less than nothing. As implied with the "rabbit-hole" analogy, I think these promotions sometimes undermine the good intentions of the public. People who might actually take a genuine role in addressing the issues presented by Autism are pacified by the illusion that something is being done when their sports hero throws a strikeout. Bur I hope you are right, that someone watching the game actually is spurred to action by hearing about Autism. Perhaps I can convince WFAN to read my blog on air when they're listing the day's totals!