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José Andrés and NBA players have made it clear: Stadiums must serve the public good

José Andrés throws the ceremonial first pitch before Game 5 of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The way Chef José Andrés sees it, Nationals Park isn’t just a baseball field.

“It’s a gigantic kitchen,” he told me this month upon returning home to D.C. after a whirlwind tour of, he figured, at least eight countries to feed those in need, often from sports stadiums his World Central Kitchen converted into food prep and distribution centers. Or, as he thinks of them, gigantic kitchens.

“It,” he said of Nationals Park, “becomes a field of hope.”

So with the pandemic in the early stages of ravaging the economy this past spring, the Andrés nonprofit that produces meals in the wake of natural disasters teamed up with the Nationals, using the stadium’s kitchen facilities to cook and hand out thousands of free meals to whomever needed them but particularly the already needy in the poorest wards of D.C. near the park.

He did the same in Baltimore at the Orioles’ and Ravens’ stadiums. In Dallas at American Airlines Arena, where the Mavericks and Stars play. In Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, which the Colts call home and where the Big Ten Conference football championship was just contested.

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He did so, most famously, in Puerto Rico at Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot, or “El Choli,” after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth three summers ago. He chronicled it all in his 2018 memoir, “We Fed an Island.”

The Nationals honored Andrés by selecting him to throw out the first pitch of Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. He has been pinned with a Michelin star and awarded countless James Beard honors for both his culinary and humanitarian skillfulness. Can we get this internationally revered local humanitarian a Nobel Prize?

After all, Andrés started reimagining in Puerto Rico how stadiums can be our gift that keeps on giving. They don’t have to be just sandboxes for billionaire sports team owners, millionaire athletic laborers and the fans who can afford the entertainment they put on. They never should have turned into such private preserves. Most arenas and stadiums are the largest facilities we can think of and are paid for with public tax dollars. Yet they rest fallow for much of the calendar, especially those built for football.

Many of us have often railed against precious public dollars being spent for such lavish private enterprises. The Andrés example should be a mandated return on these investments. There should be more use of stadiums such as what is happening at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles after Andrés’s team turned it into a colossal food pantry: It became a coronavirus testing site. Earlier this month, actor Sean Penn’s nonprofit suggested the stadium should be used as a coronavirus vaccination site as well.

“We’re praising team owners and sports teams for doing, not necessarily the right thing, but what should’ve been expected,” Michael Friedman, an instructor in Maryland’s kinesiology department and author of several journal articles on sports stadiums and public policy, told me this week. “The public has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on these facilities. These are the largest spaces that we as a society build for communal events.”

Friedman reminded, for example, that 85 percent of the construction and renovation of State Farm Arena in Atlanta, where the Hawks play, was at public cost. That wasn’t an unusual financing arrangement. So why shouldn’t the public more regularly benefit, just as NBA and WNBA players convinced some of their owners to avail the arenas and practice facilities they play in as polling places for last month’s election?

“And everyone goes out of their way to praise the Hawks for opening the doors of the arena to the public so the public can vote there,” Friedman said quizzically. “We should be having elections there all the time. This should be an expectation.”

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This country is fairly unique in how we build and use sports stadiums and arenas. They are more often built with public funds for private owners or by private owners but only after public funds are used for the roads and sewers and transportation hubs around the sites.

Friedman pointed out that Australia considers building stadiums as part of civic infrastructure, like roads and bridges. As a result, they often get used more for the public good than just for games.

When I was researching the American Basketball Association team led by Rick Barry that played in D.C. from 1969 to 1970 at the old Washington Coliseum, a.k.a. Uline Arena, now an REI store, I was surprised to find out it was used as a detention center in 1971 for anti-Vietnam War protesters. That isn’t the public use envisioned here. A staging ground for police and National Guard, as Camden Yards’ parking lot became in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in custody of Baltimore police, isn’t the idea either.

This is about humanitarian efforts. Using their kitchens that were designed to feed tens of thousands of people anyway. Using their luxury suites, maybe, as emergency shelters. Using their locations in city centers or near highway offramps as distribution points.

“They’re very centric, have big spaces and are easy to organize,” Andrés said of most stadiums. “It’s amazing to see such an important role these stadiums can play. The stadium in a national emergency is a perfect place to protect people.”

Andrés said that thought first dawned on him while he watched the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina unfold at the Superdome, which became a tragic warehouse for the suddenly dispossessed poor of New Orleans.

“I wish I could go back in time,” Andrés said, thinking of how he could have made better use of the 75,000-seat multipurpose arena. “If it’s public money … then those venues should be able to be used as some sort of humanitarian response. We need to be thinking that way going forward.”

Let us make that a resolution for 2021 and beyond.