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Temples Of Our Times

This column was written by Edward Morrissey.
One can draw conclusions about the values of society by the places of worship it builds and the gods they revere in them. Ancient Aztecs built temples to gods requiring bloody human sacrifices, while Zoroastrians largely concerned themselves with less murderous and more deeply spiritual centers of worship. Buddhists create peaceful areas for meditation; Christians and Muslims aspire to touch God in some manner through architectural means, giving places of sanctuary and prayer to their followers.

What temples do secular societies build? Lately in America, cities and states have increasingly found themselves funding and building vast offerings to professional athletes and the games they play, even though the owners and participants of these games make enough money to house themselves quite handsomely. Why do communities foot the bill for this, and what does it say about the people who support the practice?

That question moved from a vague philosophical debate to practical and uncomfortable introspection for many in Minnesota last week. The Minnesota Vikings have long demanded a new venue in which to play their games – one funded by taxpayers and from which the proceeds almost exclusively support the privately-owned team. In the past seven years, the team has gone through three different owner groups, but all of them have demanded public financing for a new, improved stadium to replace the 23-year-old Hubert Humphrey Metrodome.

Local voter opinion has consistently opposed a publicly-financed NFL stadium, as it has opposed with a similar demand from the Minnesota Twins. However, this year it appeared that new ownership had campaigned hard and threatened often enough to leave so that political momentum had built towards a solution – one that would not include direct participation on behalf of the voters, but would include taxes: Governor Tim Pawlenty opened up the possibility of reversing an election pledge against increasing taxes to pay for a new NFL facility.

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That's when the Vikings decided to do a remake of The Love Boat on Lake Minnetonka.

According to allegations aired in the local news media and confirmed in the main through player interviews, team members flew in high-priced prostitutes from Atlanta and strippers to accompany them on a two-boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka. The partying quickly got out of hand, with players having sex with the prostitutes while the cruise boat personnel had to stand by and continue serving the athletes. The cruise ship personnel alleged that some of the players harassed female staffers and others forced their way behind the bars to ensure that the booze flowed freely. Forty minutes into what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour cruise, the two captains compared notes about the activities on both boats, and then informed the cruise company – which ordered them to return immediately to shore.

The players claim that this has been blown out of proportion. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press reports that they want it known that not every player had sex on the boat:

"Some of them were gentlemen," said Stephen Doyle, the attorney for boat owners Merritt and Daryl Geyen of Al & Alma's Supper Club and Charter Cruises in Mound. "I agree with them all the way. As a Viking fan, the last thing I want is all the players involved in these accusations."

The two players said only a few players had sex on the boat, and Doyle does not deny that.

"First of all, I would say, I fully understand that concern, and I would love to clarify that for them," Doyle said. "But I don't want to pre-empt the police investigation. I understand their view, and I'm trying to be responsible, so nobody gets some exaggerated idea of what happened."

Doyle has said that 17 of the 90 people aboard the two boats were identified by crew members as Vikings and that some were trying to help crew members who believed their safety was in danger.

What a relief.

But what do we expect? When the main reason these multimillionaires get their communities to pay for their arena-temples is by extorting the desperation of other cities to host a team, why should the Golden Calf-like celebrations shock us? And indeed, does the problem really begin and end with professional athletes? If the example of Kellenberg Memorial High School is anything but exceptional, the answer is, sadly, no.

Principal Kenneth Hoagland had grown increasingly concerned with the conspicuous consumption that surrounds the modern high-school prom. This rite of passage has undergone a transformation. Once a memorable coming out for young adults into self-sufficiency, it has in some cases curdled into a bizarre rite of hedonistic excess. Instead of students working to put together a reasonable evening of formal entertainment, parents use the occasion to spend thousands of dollars on limousines, pre-dance cocktail parties, post-dance booze cruises, and all-nighters at fancy resorts and hotels with no supervision whatsoever . . . for their teenage children.

Hoagland has seen this change at Kellenberg. This year he discovered that several students from his well-to-do community had put together enough money to rent a house in the Hamptons in order to stage a post-prom all-nighter, without any parental supervision – a rental that cost $20,000. He forced the students to cancel the party by threatening to cancel the prom altogether, which they did.

The parents, in turn, rented the house themselves and handed the keys to their children.

Hoagland canceled the prom and wrote a long letter to parents explaining that the Catholic school where they send their children could not support either the tacit endorsement of a night of alcohol and sex, nor the escalating conspicuous consumption. Brother Hoagland of the Society of Mary wrote that "[i]t is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be; it is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake--in a word, financial decadence. . . . [Kellenberg] is willing to sponsor a prom, but not an orgy."

At last word, the parents of the deprived Kellenberg students were still discussing staging the prom themselves without the school's sponsorship.

Perhaps in the end, spending public money on professional sports arenas makes sense. A few decades ago, when owners built their own stadiums or contented themselves with leasing community-owned multi-use facilities, the athletes focused on the games and eschewed the antics that pervade sports these days – end zone dances, taunting, obscene gestures, and the rest.

As the athletes and owners got richer, they demanded more and more of the communities that made them successful in the first place. Yet perhaps its much worse than all that. Perhaps these people aren't changing the culture, but are instead reflecting it. Rather than simply holding up athletes and owners alone for derision, we should consider whether we'd be worshiping at their temples regardless.

Edward Morrissey is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Captain's Quarters.

By Edward Morrissey. ©

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