Thursday, September 17, 2009

Park District brings question to my mind – “Are they kidding?” about Payton

In theory, I want to give the Chicago Park District a pat on the back for taking a hard line stance with regards to the family of Chicago Bears great Walter Payton, who want to put a statue of “Sweetness” outside the stadium where the Bears play.

That stadium, of course, is Soldier Field, and it has been owned by the Chicago Park District for decades. It was originally built to be a public facility for sporting events to be witnessed by the masses of Chicago.

IT ALSO WAS to serve along with Navy Pier as a memorial to the military personnel of this nation – Soldier Field and Navy Pier. Now if we could only find something in this city to name for the Air Force and the Marines, we’d have the perfect set.

But it is because of that tradition that the building that seats more than 60,000 people for Bears games eight Sundays each year is a military memorial that the Park District is refusing to allow the Payton statue.

They told the Chicago Tribune that putting up the statue would diminish the memory of the soldiers, even though I’m sure the masses who tailgate outside Bears games probably think more of Payton than any soldier.

It is a nice ideal. I’d like to think that the Park District is sincere in saying such a thing.

BUT I AM one of those people who thinks that the 2001 renovation of Soldier Field killed off any semblance of the building being a war memorial – even though the renovated stadium’s advocates will claim that people can now check out the columns that pay tribute to soldiers.

In fact, any time people mock the Yankee Stadium renovation of the mid-1970s as somehow ruining the historic character of that building, I’d argue that the Soldier Field renovation was worse.

It literally got the building knocked off the National Register of Historic Places, because the changes to put in all those seats that sort of hover over the field (as though it is better to be sky-high than many rows back) obliterated the feel of what made Soldier Field architecturally unique.

So the idea that anyone seriously believes it is a war memorial any longer is absurd, although it probably maintains more character than Navy Pier, which has been turned into a commercial shopping center for the tourist-minded among us.

IN SHORT, CHICAGO has in recent years dumped on what was supposed to be its significant memorials to the military.

So the idea that anyone is now trying to use the military and its supposed presence as an excuse to avoid making some change is absurd.

Particularly since I can envision this rejection managing to offend many Chicago Bears fans who see how so many other new stadiums include among their decorative elements all kinds of statues paying tribute to the top ballplayers in those particular franchise’s histories.

Even in Chicago, just about every other building used for professional sports has these statues – with the best known being that one of Michael Jordan dunking a bronze basketball outside the United Center – and across the street from the Chicago Stadium where his Hall of Fame-quality pro basketball career began.

HECK, EVEN HARRY Caray gets a statue (the one that intoxicated Chicago Cubs fans like to load up with cans of Budweiser) outside Wrigley Field just for slurring his way through 17 years worth of Cubs baseball broadcasts (he really was on top of his game with the St. Louis Cardinals and the White Sox).

So I’m sure there are people who are going to be critical of the Park District and accuse them of disrespecting the memory of Payton, a Hall of Fame football player in his own right.

It turns out that Payton’s widow, Connie, wants this memorial to her late husband (who hasn’t played for the Bears in two decades and has been deceased for 10 years now, time flies too fast).

She’s willing to arrange to have the statue made and to donate it, provided they promise to erect it in a place where it will be seen (and not just become the receptacle for bird droppings).

EVEN THE BEARS themselves (who, let’s be honest, often show a knack for boneheaded public relations moves) are on board, saying they will try to talk some sense into the heads of their landlords to allow for the statue to be erected somewhere.

So I’m wondering how the Park District will wind up backing away from their “military memorial” stance while trying to pretend they didn’t change a thing. For the reality is that modern-day governments build these stadiums (or – in the case of the Chicago Park District – renovate them to the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars), but then give the teams total control over how they are used.

In some cases, they even let the teams have the bulk of the revenues that are earned (parking, concessions) from staging private athletic events in what ostensibly are public buildings.

Just so long as nobody gets the “bright” idea of trying to pay tribute to the memory of the definitely un-immortal Bobby Douglas. For that one, I would be willing to buy the “soldier memorial” excuse.


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