COMMENTARY: Watching Bengals on TV? Thank charity

Welfare is in the eye of the beholder and receiver

We’ve averted the scariest crisis to hit the tri-state area since Thursday’s weather report. Thanks to an odd twist of charity—the rich giving to the rich to help keep the non-rich from raising a stink—Sunday’s Cincinnati Bengals’ home playoff game will be watchable on local television.

There were fun turns in the drama of a potential, NFL-imposed television blackout of a playoff game.

First, the former Bengal receiver once and now known again as Chad Johnson stepped up as every celebrity does now—via Twitter—to announce he would buy up the remaining 10,000 tickets that, as of Wednesday, sat cold in the Bengals’ box office. Johnson apparently pulled back when he learned it would cost him nearly $1 million to deliver. Senator Sherrod Brown wrote a pleading letter to the NFL. Restaurateur Jeff Ruby talked of saving the day. Finally, by Friday, a front line of local corporate giants called a blitz, intercepted the thousands of remaining tickets and, to complete this metaphor, lateralled them back to military families. My employer, Scripps/WCPO, also joined local businesses and bought tickets.

Through all the breathless media coverage of the pending #blackoutgate, I didn’t read one online comment chastising the Bengals as freeloading charity cases dependent on others for carrying their freight. I find this puzzling because commenters seem to emerge from their caves whenever there’s a story about an artist or arts organization helped, to any degree, through dollars that aren't earned in the capital marketplace.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s money from the Ohio Arts Council or ArtsWave, private money or money from a nonprofit foundation, many of the people populating media comment threads act as if artists have just reached into their personal pockets to finance lifestyles of doodles and spasmodic convulsions that, in cultured circles, pass for dance.

I often see comments similar to this about orchestras, theater companies and other arts organizations: “If they can’t sell enough tickets to make a profit, maybe they should give it up and do something people want.” Particularly jaw-dropping were commenters around the Cincinnati Streetcar Project, insinuating that arts organizations and others in Over-the-Rhine were only acting out of self-interest.

Here’s something to chew on: If you were depending on others buying tickets so you could watch Sunday’s game on television, you’re the charity recipient. You just received a handout from Kroger, P&G and others, who collectively spent $900,000—money that could have gone to all sorts of causes—to ensure you have the opportunity to watch one playoff game from your couch. Here’s what a conservative would say to you: You’re just fine with that, as long as it’s other people’s money.

I’m not going to say that. Charity—on personal, private and public levels, large and small—is often the glue of neighborhoods and communities. Many of the corporations that stepped up so you could watch Sunday's playoff game on TV also give mightily to the arts. But I wonder: If the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had to have sellout concerts so that public radio's WGUC would broadcast them, would these corporations jump in and buy up the remaining tickets and donate them to military personnel? There would be far more bows for the buck.

We should count on each other for understanding, empathy and support, to grant space for value that can’t be quantified in dollars. In this case, it’s community goodwill. Tomorrow, it might be the welfare of a neighborhood you never visit. When we act with generosity—of spirit, of our dollars and otherwise—we all do better.

I don’t need to tell you this, right? If you’re a longtime Hamilton County taxpayer, you’re already well-versed in the charity you’ve extended to the Bengals. After all, in 1996, you were willing to part with $550 million of your dollars, when all was said and done, to gift-wrap Paul Brown Stadium to the team. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal called this the most lopsided public giveaway in the history of professional sports. You’d think for this kind of giving, every county taxpayer would receive box seats to every home game. 

Going forward, whenever you hear of an artist or arts organization creating work that can’t be supported solely through the marketplace of demand, think back to the largesse that came your way this week and, remember, we're all in this together.

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