As “Where were you?” moments go, last Tuesday’s firing of Jack Del Rio/sale of the Jacksonville Jaguars ranks just ahead of the death of Michael Jackson and slightly behind the acquittal of Casey Anthony.
It was a surprise, no doubt, and it had our local TV news outlets doing what they do worst — covering events for which they are unprepared. When the morning anchors on First Coast News tracked down their sports director, Dan Hicken, he couldn’t bother to shed his Jaguars hoodie for the interview. Meanwhile, the city’s other news outlets had trouble deciding whether the team’s new owner, Shahid Kahn, is a citizen of India, Pakistan, Great Britain or the U.S.
With his open collar, flyaway hair and red-rimmed eyes, Jags owner Wayne Weaver had the appearance of a father who had spent the previous night combing the bars for his teenage daughter. He looked tired, frustrated and defeated.
We haven’t heard the whole story behind the end of the Weaver dynasty, but the fire-the-coach-extend-the-GM-sell-the-team-gasm had an air of desperation. Maybe Weaver has some unreported financial problems. Or, more likely, maybe he simply couldn’t stomach another year pimping a losing product in a down economy to a small market, all while having to field calls from every NFL-owner-wanabee hounding him to sell the team.
It must be exhausting to be the ringleader of a concerted effort to fleece Northeast Florida of every last nickel of disposable income. Over the last 18 years, Weaver and his pals have conned countless local businesses and institutions into questionable “partnerships” with the team. All eventually discovered their money could be better spent elsewhere, but Weaver and the team benefited from a seemingly endless supply of rubes waiting to take their turn as the “Official (Insert Your Business Here) of the Jaguars.”
When not scamming gullible business owners, Weaver and company have grown fat shaming average folks into spending their dwindling resources on the most expensive tickets, hot dogs and beer in the city.
But worse than the money wasted has been the sheer distraction of it all. It’s one thing for fans to enjoy the occasional diversion the NFL offers, but it’s quite another when an entire city government becomes fixated on the financial success of a football team (a private entity that enriches very few). In the wake of the Jaguars’ sale, it was depressing to hear Mayor Alvin Brown reiterate his desire to make Jacksonville more of a “sports city.”
Let’s be clear: The Jacksonville Jaguars have done absolutely nothing to promote job growth, reduce homicides, cut the high school drop-out rate, prop up housing prices, or improve (Insert Your Socio-Economic Problem Here).
Two decades ago, city leaders promised that an NFL franchise would put Northeast Florida “on the map,” luring corporate titans who would bring industry to Jacksonville, enriching the local economy and, by extension, you and me.
Well, the results of that experiment are in — and it has been a failure. The hundreds of millions of public and private dollars lavished on Wayne Weaver and his minions have not improved the region’s quality of life by any measure. Too often city leaders’ obsession with pro football caused them to neglect the fundamentals of a great city.
If anything good comes from the Jaguars’ sale, perhaps it will shift the team into its proper context. With the city no longer beholden to the team’s founder, civic leaders may feel more comfortable saying “no” when Mr. Kahn comes begging for money the city no longer has.
Kahn is not obliged — ethically, legally or morally — to keep the team in Northeast Florida. If the Jaguars remain, let’s hope it’s because they offer an entertaining product at a competitive price that can exist without government subsidies. Kahn needs to hear the city has more pressing problems than the financial health of its NFL franchise.
Success for the Jaguars also depends on a growing economy, better schools and safer streets. For that to happen, city leaders will have to ignore the inevitable pleas for new Jumbotrons and luxury suites — and the underlying threats to take the team elsewhere.
If the Jags do leave for Los Angeles, Chicago or London, we can be safe in the knowledge that Northeast Florida will survive — even thrive — in its absence.
It may be an experiment worth considering.
Snell is a former editor and occasional contributor to Folio Weekly.