It’s tempting for Kansas Citians to gloat about the discomfort of our St. Louis friends as they contemplate the loss of their NFL team, the Rams. While the Chiefs plan their next playoff game and the world champion Royals pack for spring training, St. Louis faces a future without pro football.
We should not surrender to schadenfreude, however. In my lifetime, Kansas City has lost the baseball Athletics, the basketball Kings and the hockey Scouts. The Sprint Center still lacks a major league tenant. Sports fans in every city, including ours, always face the risk of their teams slinking away to find greener grass somewhere else.
And we shouldn’t misinterpret the massive crowd for the Royals parade, or the team’s record attendance. Many Kansas Citians, and Americans, are supremely uninterested in professional athletes or their semiprofessional collegiate cousins. They’re fiercely resistant to using their tax money to build ballparks, stadiums and arenas or to otherwise subsidize professional competition.
We may never know if that resistance might have been overcome in St. Louis, where city and state leaders had sought public financing for a new football stadium. By all accounts, the people in that city were queasy about the idea. Other Missourians were downright hostile.
As a political matter, though, the push for a stadium in St. Louis could not have been handled more poorly.
Any public project as controversial as a stadium must have public support. That support must be obvious and overwhelming — it should reflect a broad consensus that a team is so important, and its facilities are in such bad shape, that taxpayer funding is justified. The only way a stadium goes to the top of a city’s to-do list is if the people put it there.
Yet in St. Louis, at every turn, local and state leaders tried to keep the voters’ voice out of the stadium debate. St. Louis County was removed from the project to keep its voters from casting ballots. The stadium authority sued the city of St. Louis to make sure voters had no say. Gov. Jay Nixon asserted a right to borrow millions of dollars for the football stadium without the approval of voters or their elected representatives.
These were all mistakes and reflected a fundamental failure. If there’s one consistent message in contemporary politics, it’s this: Voters and taxpayers want a more direct role in major public decisions.
We see that in Kansas City, where council decisions are now routinely subject to petition drives (are you listening, 18th and Vine?). Voters in Colorado took marijuana into their own hands. Even Donald Trump’s success reflects disdain for traditional decision-making by political and media elites.
The Internet age has made participatory democracy — petitions, protests, legal challenges — inevitable and essential.
Sure, voters might have rejected a new stadium in St. Louis anyway, and the Rams might have left no matter what the public wanted. The team’s owner is not fond of the community, and the feeling is mutual. And government by referendum is messy.
But depriving voters of the right to be heard probably doomed whatever chance St. Louis had to build a new stadium and keep its team. Kansas City, and the rest of the nation, should take notice.