Ralph Nader is best known as a legendary consumer advocate, a person who has touched virtually every aspect of our lives from car safety to the quality of our food. He’s also a notable thorn in the side of Democratic Party activists desperate to win a presidential election and flummoxed by his quadrennial candidacy. However, few people know that Nader is also an avid sports fan. He was responsible for the launching of the League of Fans, a sports reform project, and he has also passionately pushed for a “Bill of Rights” for the American sports fan. In addition, he has recently made the sports pages by raising serious criticisms of NBA referees–assertions he has made for years that are finally being taken seriously in the wake of statements made by disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy.
When did you become a sports fan?
I was really taken by Lou Gehrig when I was a little boy because of his demeanor and his stamina. Remember, he played in over 2,000 consecutive games at that time, which was since eclipsed by Cal Ripken. But you know how everyone has a sports hero when they’re a boy? This one really stayed with me. The concept of stamina and persistence. And it turned me into a Yankees fan.
Persistence is a word that a lot of people associate with you in your public life. Is Gehrig an inspiration in this regard?
Oh, most definitely. There’s only one picture in my office on the wall, only one: Lou Gehrig.
When did you realize that League of Fans was a project you wanted to be involved in?
Well, actually there’s a precursor. We had a fans’ group in the 1970s that put out a very probing newsletter. The idea then was how fans are being ripped off; they had no voice; they had no organized role. They were being overcharged. They were being subjected to blackouts in their hometown for example, if the stadium didn’t sell out. This was also the beginning of a move for tax-funded stadiums and ballparks. There were really quite a lot of issues. We had 1,000 dues-paying members, but we couldn’t get it beyond that. But my desire was to have fans organize–because after all, they’re consumers. They’re consumers at the service of mammoth sports enterprises that have antitrust exemptions, that have all sorts of tax-depreciating rights for their players.
I mean, it’s almost a mint to produce money. They gouged the fans as consumers; parking, food, tickets, and they gouged them as taxpayers too. So it was really a composite situation that is replayed throughout the economy between large corporations and consumers. Since, as sports fans, we’re very, very clever and understanding of the rules of the game, the strategies and the players, and…know the history of the players and teams and [are] loyal to the teams, I said, “Imagine if voters did their homework, and imagine if voters had that kind of tactical and strategic sense. Imagine voters who rooted for rookies–if voters wanted to give new candidates a chance to play on the field. So we started leagueoffans.org, and once again we came up with all kinds of needs to organize fans–especially to oppose tax-funded stadiums while clinics, libraries and schools were crumbling the the same cities for lack of public investment.