The Coliseum in Rome was the centerpiece of the ‘imperium sine fine’—an empire that spanned three continents and more than a millennium. Masses thronged to the spectacles held at the Coliseum, enchanted by dramatic plots, life and death struggles of gladiators and beasts, and a chance to glimpse the opulent fruits of empire. Oligarchs sponsored the games as part of an entrenched patronage system that allowed the hungry peons to enjoy scraps of the empire’s wealth in exchange for appropriate shows of gratitude. Writing a century after the Roman Republic gave way to the dictatorial reigns of the Caesars, Roman satirist Juvenal noted, "The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs for just two things- bread and circuses!"
The United States—an upstart empire cast in the lineage of Roman antiquity—has adopted both the ancient zeal for spectacles and their control by oligarchs. The National Football League, the most profitable sports league in the world with a record $9 billion hauled in in 2012, is a legal monopoly founded and operated by a collection of billionaires and multi-millionaires as a non-profit organization. Well worked, gentlemen. These oligarchs have begrudgingly cut their gladiators in on the astronomical profits, creating a class of American Dream poster children that projects lavish lifestyles of wealth and fame that are increasingly distant from the experiences of their core fans. Indeed, the wealth of the NFL has exploded in the past 40 years while economic inequality in the United States has steadily increased over that same period. But that hasn't stopped the NFL from liberally dipping in to dwindling public funds to build new stadiums for their billion-dollar franchises—the majority of the billions spent on stadium construction in the past four decades has been paid for with taxpayer money.
Perhaps one of the most influential and corrupt geopolitical players, FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) has the privilege of running the largest sporting spectacle on the globe, The World Cup Finals. Teams representing 32 nation-states from all over the world play their hearts out in a tournament that lasts one month and only comes around every four years. The beautiful game at its finest, with a corporate payday to match. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA was paid $1.2 billion for advertising rights by the likes of Coca Cola, Visa, Sony, Adidas, McDonalds, and Budweiser. FIFA brought in over $3.5 billion overall in 2010 and looks forward to breaking $4 billion at this year’s tournament in Brazil. All this bounty comes amidst rampant social inequity in World Cup host nations. The billions of dollars being spent by the Brazilian government on stadium construction have been protested by citizens who see improvement of poor education and health care systems as higher priorities. Their arguments are bolstered by the low rate of return South Africa saw on similar investments for the 2010 Finals. 2022 World Cup host Qatar has come under fire from international human rights groups for using forced labor to build stadiums for the event. Aidan McQuade, director of the British NGO Anti-Slavery International, said of the World Cup construction in Qatar, “ [T]hese working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labor to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labor. It is already happening.”
This is our coliseum complex: a craving for bigger and bigger spectacles, an addiction nourished by oligarchs who profit wildly at our expense. Our love for sports and drive to socialize are twisted into corporate business plans. We know that their product isn’t sport anymore, that the value added is as suspect as the saturated fat in the exorbitantly-priced potato chips sold at the stadiums, but we consume it anyways. And as we consume, our neurosis grows along with corporate profits and the insidiousness of media campaigns that tell us to consume more.
In Oakland, California our coliseum complex manifests physically--the home of our beloved A's, Raiders, and Warriors. For now. Our coliseum complex is haunted by naked capitalist logic and attendant flight risks. Here the veil drops; as the front offices of the franchises openly shop for new home cities, we fans are left to wonder how a business can so effectively make its coin off of a local identity it doesn't share. The teams may leave Oakland shady-style like the Colts did Baltimore or with graceful PR and profuse thank you's, but either way they always have one foot out of the door because of the money. The type of money that starts with b's like 'big' and 'billion'. The type of money that can help uplift whole communities like Oakland. The type of money that pays for the most extravagant circuses in human history while social inequity is steady on the rise.