“He’s A Great Humanitarian, He’s A Great Philanthropist”
It was early. I was at the House of Blues on a morning in late July ’96 representing my employer, the advertising department of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. House of Blues was to provide the AJC with a check for the ads they’d run with us that week. I was there for the check and to go over design ideas for the upcoming ads. Getting through it all took a lot of time, but that’s because the three of us got on well and would talk about this, that and the other. “We may get Dylan to play here the last two nights of the Olympics,” said one of the guys.
“But he wants a lot of money.” “So does the AJC, ” I said, wondering what was taking the accounting department so long to bring the check down. I reasoned Dylan was Dylan, not Junior Brown or the Mavericks, who’d also be playing there the last weekend. The booking guy was annoyed over how much Dylan wanted, repeating it was a lot of money. “You guys want a lot of money for a bottle of beer,” I replied, grabbing the newspaper’s check from a runner on my way out. The next day I was back. The marketing guy was all excited, saying, “We have to design a new ad. We got Dylan.”
On August 3 and 4, Bob Dylan gave two great shows at the House of Blues. People numbering in the thousands would tell you Dylan’s concerts were the highlights of Atlanta’s Olympic summer. Forget the Dream Team. Give Dylan a gold medal — along with however much money the House of Blues coughed up.
As Dylan was getting ready to give his second House of Blues concert, nervous Atlantans waited to hear what International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch would say in his closing ceremony address. Always jubilant with the Games under his helm, Samaranch had traditionally declared the Olympics just concluded as “the best Olympics ever.” Atlanta needed to hear him say it again, just as he said it four years earlier in his hometown, Barcelona, Spain. Instead, what Atlantans and the world heard was, “Well done, Atlanta,” and “most exceptional.” We saw it coming: the city with an inferiority complex had more to feel inferior about. Another PR pratfall to finesse; just like the flea market atmosphere downtown close to game venues; just like the drivers of the media buses getting lost; just like the security lapses that allowed Eric Robert Rudolph to place a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park; just like the 30 pick-up trucks in the garish opening ceremony. Most exceptional indeed.
The next morning, Alan Gordon, an editor at the AJC, and I were outside the newspaper building as the downtown streets emptied. The flea marketeers had packed up and headed back home with their tacky trifles, none the richer for taking part in the city’s vending scam. Considering their sad plights made us think of what all our town had experienced — the good and not so good. Many of the day-to-day events leading up to and through the Olympics were great fun. Dylan, Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Cash and other greats had performed at the old Baptist Tabernacle sanctuary converted into what we hoped would be the permanent home for an Atlanta House of Blues. And appreciated most was the sense of vitality — quite rare for Atlanta’s downtown — that pervaded the city’s central business district. It was great for one’s hometown to be the center of the world’s attention for a couple of weeks, even with the embarrassments. Alan and I took some sad looks up and down Marietta Street and sighed. We hated to see everyone go. But at least we were left with a great major league baseball team, the Atlanta Braves. They couldn’t take that away from us.
For Atlanta’s baseball fans, the best news was that after the ’96 Games, the freshly minted Olympic Stadium would be converted into the new home of the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the home of the Braves for 31 seasons, had aged badly. In fact, by the time Hank Aaron hit home run 715 there (in ’74, the Braves’ 9th season in Atlanta), the stadium already had a neglected look and feel about it. The Braves’ new park, just across the street, and designed in the retro-classic style, would be named Turner Field, in honor of Ted Turner, who kept big league baseball (and also pro basketball when he purchased the Atlanta Hawks in ’77) in Atlanta.
In the ’96 baseball season, the Braves drew nearly 3 million fans. And why not? They were defending world champions on their way to another World Series. They had a great team of young home-grown players supplemented by veteran free agents. The Braves, so laughable through most of the ’70s and 80s, had become, in the words of Bob Costas, the team of the ’90s.
Still, Atlanta and environs learned quite easily to take the Braves’ success for granted. While their post-season record (only one World Championship in 5 World Series appearances) disappoints, the Braves had only two losing seasons between 1991 and 2013. 2122 wins. 1536 losses. That’s .580 ball. Three of their starting pitchers, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, would establish new standards of excellence.
As teammates from ’93 through ’02, the three starters won 5 Cy Young awards between them. (Glavine also won the Cy Young in ’91 and Maddux, then with the Chicago Cubs, won the award in ’92.) Glavine and Maddux will no doubt be elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame early next year with Smoltz likely joining them a year later. Bobby Cox, the Braves manager, from ’90 through ’10,was recently elected for induction next year, and Chipper Jones, the Braves’ best position player for most of the glory years, should also be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2018. The achievements of the Braves over the last 23 years have been astounding. History making stuff. The Braves compiled a record that Atlantans who knew their baseball could point to with pride — and awe.
When Your Troubles Feel Like They Weigh A Ton . . . . Also in Atlanta is the National Football League team known as the Falcons, an expansion team that began play in 1966. Much of their history has been similar to tragic car wrecks people recall when passing dangerous intersections. Things for the Falcons were even worse before the ’90s, but over the same 23 year period of the Braves’ excellence, they’re two games under .500 (182-184), with 36 of their wins over the last three full seasons (2010-12). This year, the Falcons are 4-11, bringing to life memories of their first quarter century of play.
The NFL is often referred to as the National Felons League. Some believe the appellation is unfair; others believe it an acknowledgement of reality. Between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, at least 31 NFL players were arrested. Some of the charges were the standard DUIs, “criminal mischief,” and assault, with the two worst offenses being “attempted murder” and “first degree murder.” No Atlanta Falcon in memory has been charged with murder, at least not murdering a human being, but Michael Vick, the team’s star quarterback did serve most of two years (07-09) in Federal Prison for promoting and financing an interstate dog-fighting operation. Canine executions were part of the events he staged. Vick’s off-season activities were hardly the acts of kindness extolled by players in the NFL-sponsored United Way commercials. In fact, it was difficult to associate Vick with anything charitable. Before the dog stories broke, Vick, struggling through a tough season, gave fans the “bird,” in fact a “double-bird,” as he walked off the field. (Two middle fingers up…. way up).
The most disappointed of Vick’s supporters was Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He had gleaned an entirely different impression of his star quarterback. Vick had even come to the owner’s home for dinner and played video games with Blank’s children. One could feel bad for Blank, a nice man dealing with an embarrassing story. One felt worse for the dogs, but still there was still support in Atlanta for Michael Vick. After all, he was an exciting quarterback capable of engineering the most spectacular plays. He didn’t play the game by the book; on the field, he wrote his own book while chewing up yardage. Thus, once a free man, he’d write additional chapters. Many NFL teams with no shame would hustle to sign him up.
During the 2009 season, Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, but they used him sparingly as a back-up to Donovan McNabb, a great player and fine gentleman. Yet McNabb was past his prime and by next season, Vick was named the Eagles’ starting quarterback. When there’s money to made, an NFL team will put humanitarian concerns aside, even when the player is someone a PETA spokesman suggested had the attributes of a “psychopath.”
The members of PETA weren’t the only ones unhappy with Vick’s return to glory. Elton John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, in his blog, questioned how Vick, “a guy who has racked up some of the most heinous cruelties you could possibly inflict on an innocent creature be idolized, lionized and treated like the second coming of Christ?” Taupin, an avowed football fan, had difficulty fathoming the lack of values in the NFL, noting, “When it comes to football, the agonizing deaths and stifled whimpers of the dogs he tortured, electrocuted, hung and drowned are swept conveniently under the rug.”
When Vick and the Eagles came to play the Falcons in the Georgia Dome on December 7, 2009, the response of Vick supporters would have disgusted Taupin all the more. Of course, Vick was relishing the moment, according to the Associated Press:
“It was as loud as it gets in the Dome,” said Vick, who teared up on the bus ride over to the stadium. “I heard the chants all through the stadium and it sent chills down my spine. They were just letting me know that people still appreciate what I’ve done.”
OK, whatever, but Vick was right in recognizing thousands of Atlanta fans had his back. A couple of years before, a local minister used his pulpit to reprove an Atlanta sportswriter, a member of the church, for being critical of Vick in his columns. He saw no good in a black sportswriter bringing down an accomplished black athlete, a hero to many in our town. Making this more amazing is that the sportswriter was the one often condemned by hothead whites on the sports talk shows whenever the subject of race was raised. In Atlanta, it’s little wonder that some topics go wanting for civil discussion.
But football trumps all down south. Consider the case of the Atlanta Falcons and their owner, Arthur Blank. The poor Falcons have had to play in the Georgia Dome, opened in ’92 and built by Georgia taxpayers at a cost of $214 million. The Georgia Dome is hardly a classic structure, but 70,000 fans often pack the place for NFL games. Concerts by Paul McCartney, U2 and the Rolling Stones were held there in the ’90s, and major college football and basketball games are also played in the Dome, with few expressing irritation over the ambiance. Still, Blank has been talking for years about needing a new stadium so his Falcons could be more competitive— a word in this caffeinated society that’s used to make taxpayers man-up. In doing so, more plush suites will be available to the swells attending the game, likely at a cost to taxpayers somewhere. Given all that, in the way Atlanta’s power elite view things, the Georgia Dome, just 21 years old, is worthy of the wrecking ball. Arthur Blank, Falcons owner and respected philanthropist, with the help of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, gets his way.
The Band Is Playing “Dixie,” A Man Got His Hand Outstretched . . . . Give Arthur Blank credit. He, with some help from the NFL, agreed to pay for most of the new Falcons nest, which will go up in the same vicinity as the Georgia Dome. It will be part of the Georgia World Congress Center and host the same annual events — and more — as held at the Dome. So what’s not to like? For one, Blank’s plea for funds — some $200 million — from the tax collected by Atlanta hotels and motels, kept clean and comfy by employees eking out a living in a region slowly rebounding from the Great Recession. Yet new Falcons stadium boosters point out, as Blank did in the December 22 AJC, that “84% of the tax is being paid by people who don’t live in this state.” Talk about Southern hospitality; Welcome to Atlanta, now bend over.
By state law, the hotel-motel tax cannot be used by the City of Atlanta for basic infrastructure, public safety, libraries, schools; you know, frou-frou stuff. It can only be “used for a variety of projects that will help promote the city as a tourist destination for meetings or conventions, historic and cultural travel and other types of attractions,” so says an Atlanta Falcons website. While it is fair to say that such tax allocations can help create jobs and enhance the city’s quality of life, the claim falls on deaf ears among tens of thousands of city taxpayers.
Here we go again, they think, another subsidy for a professional sports team owner — this one, who Forbes listed in September ’13 as being worth $1.7 billion. Forbes also reported that the expected revenues Blank can expect at the Falcons’ new nest raised the team valuation to $933 million, not bad for a team that has for most of its history been an embarrassment to its hometown. Also, Forbes noted Blank’s own net worth climbed by half a billion dollars from September 2010 to September 2013.
There’s little sense in begrudging the wealth Blank has attained through his co-founding of Home Depot and the investments he’s made. It isn’t a day at the beach to visit Home Depot, but the stores have served a need in the marketplace. Blank worked hard and worked smart in developing that big box chain. In his field, he did a lot of things better than others, so more power to him. Blank has also contributed money — and his own time — to charities and good causes. When you meet him, he comes across as a good guy. He has concerns on the humanitarian side that compels the great philanthropist in him to sign the “Giving Pledge.” According to the “Giving Pledge” rules, a signatory promises to donate at least half of his wealth to charitable concerns, either during his lifetime or afterward.
The Tender Touch Of The Beast . . . . Already Blank has made sizeable donations to education, environmental and arts organizations. Quite often he’s shown his heart to be in the right place — and his wallet tags along. That makes his determination in getting taxpayers to kick in for the new Falcons stadium more disappointing. NFL teams, with their tax exemptions, tax abatements, television contracts and revenue sharing plans, are immensely profitable. Any owner claiming to be in the red is lying or is among the world’s worst business people. We know Blank to be a very savvy businessman — and he’s smooth. In the December 22 interview with the AJC, he was asked why he needed a hotel-motel tax to help build his new stadium. The savvy and smooth answer follows:
“The success of the franchise shouldn’t be dependent on one individual or their estate, but it should be a sustainable organization. A public-private partnership is very important. In this case, 84% of the tax is being paid by people who don’t live in the state. The stadium will impact tourism in a positive way. We think the tax is a fair level of public support.”
So there you have it. Blank assumes and commands “a fair level of public support.” Never mind that said support wasn’t approved via referendum by the impacted public which has little interest in subsidizing a billionaire whose shiniest toy is a team of millionaires. But in Atlanta and the state of Georgia, that hardly matters. The political mix here is a strange hybrid that hardly serves the citizenry, so of course the Falcons get their stadium — partially paid for with the $200 million from the hotel-motel tax, which according to the great philanthropist, is mostly collected from people who don’t live in Atlanta.
But could the people who live here use such a tax to fund programs that would help them and their children have a cleaner, safer and more informed community? The answer is absolutely not. That’s because we’re dealt the short hand by community leaders similar to those at the marketplace in Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard;” Merchants and thieves, hungry for power. “Changing of the Guard” wasn’t part of either set performed by Dylan at House of Blues during the Atlanta Olympics. Too bad. In our festive time, feeling distant from the daily struggle, we needed a reminder of who and what holds us down.