The national edition of the New York Times
devoted four entire pages, five columns (including two on its op-ed page), and ten stories overall to the death of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Such coverage is usually reserved for ex-Presidents, not a baseball team owner and ex-felon pardoned by a President. No sports team owner has ever received such massive coverage. It shows how even the Times’
national edition defines what’s important by its impact on New York City, grossly inflating the national importance of local figures. One would have to dig deep to uncover the essential truth: Steinbrenner’s success was based less on his Horatio Alger-like “will to win,” and more on the Yankees exploiting local media revenue in a sport lacking a salary cap.
If the size of newspaper obituaries is a statement of our values, than the all-out media blitz by New York City-based publications covering the death of George Steinbrenner speaks volumes. Consider that the Times’
January 27 obituary
of acclaimed scholar and activist Howard Zinn
comprised less than a half page in the rear of the Business section, while Steinbrenner’s legacy dominated multiple sections of the paper’s national edition.
Reimagining George Steinbrenner
If I did not know the truth about George Steinbrenner, here’s what I would have thought based on coverage of his death: his success was attributable to an unrivaled will to win, and willingness to spend whatever it took for the Yankees to achieve greatness.
Like all myths, this account is not without a factual basis.
Many baseball owners (see David Glass, Kansas City Royals) have fortunes far greater than Steinbrenner, and refuse to spend what it takes to win. Professional sports are rife with owners lacking Steinbrenner’s drive, and his commitment to winning helped the Yankees succeed.
But Mark Cuban
also has a powerful will to win, and will spend whatever it takes to bring the Dallas Mavericks an NBA championship. The difference between Cuban and Steinbrenner is that the former operates in a sport with a salary cap, preventing Cuban from winning titles by simply buying the best players available.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is among the many NFL owners with a powerful will to win – but unlike Steinbrenner, a salary cap limits him.
In death, Steinbrenner’s life was framed as fulfilling the American Dream. He allegedly used hard work and competitive desire to turn his hopes into reality – a scenario, like many American success stories, that eliminates how he benefited from a lack of salary cap and baseball allowing teams to generate a fortune in local television rights.
The YES Network
Steinbrenner is credited for having the foresight to create the YES Network, which ensured that the Yankees controlled all local television revenue. And he does deserve credit.
But if Steinbrenner had been allowed to buy the Cleveland Indians (which he sought to do prior to the Yankees), would his TRIBE Network have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in local television rights? No way.
The New York City media does not like to emphasize how baseball affords the city special advantages in raising and spending revenue, because it implies that Yankee victories are not all about hard work, pluck, and determination.
It’s like people claiming that George W. Bush worked hard to get where he got, instead of being a guy who was born on third base and then brags about hitting a triple.
A Bully at Heart
Barely noticeable amidst the paeans to George is that he was more a bully than a fair-minded competitor. He represented the worst of American values, and his felony conviction for giving illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon was typical of his willingness to break the law to get ahead.
Yet Steinbrenner’s win at any cost mentality is now exalted, just as these values were long lionized when practiced by Goldman Sachs.
America loves winners more than it cares about how they win. And New York City is the citadel of such values, which made Ohioan Steinbrenner a perfect match for the Yankees.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. Follow Randy on Twitter at @RandyTHClinic