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Ralph Nader tackles sport

Never put a lady in the back seat of a car if your car hasn't got vents. How's that again?

Well, two friends of mine – a couple, married and contentedly since the Battle of Austerlitz, since the Battle of the Bulge, certainly – were driving me back from Long Island into the city. It was a hot day. These two are conscientious citizens who take the president's energy programme seriously and wouldn't have air-conditioning in their car at any price. It does guzzle up the petrol. 

Well, naturally the lady, who chose to sit in the back while the two men in front mumbled chauvinist gossip, she wanted a little air. There was no way she could get it. She could have a hurricane or she could suffocate. I don't think she'd ever been in the back seat of her own car before, anyway, she discovered this particular frustration which has been built into cars only since somebody abolished the two vents. 

And in case I'm not getting through to some sleepier members of the class, let me say with painful clarity that in practically every motor car, in every American car certainly, as recently as ten years ago there were two windows that you wound down in the back – on fancy cars you pressed a button – and in the front there were four windows. Two you wound down (or buttoned) and, in front of them, two little triangular windows that were laterally hinged. In other words, you pushed them out. There are/were called vents. 

An almost instant proof of dumbness in a cab driver was his unawareness what the vents are for because cab drivers never sit in the back seat and therefore the less intelligent of them don't know what if feels like when the driver fails to appreciate the purpose of the vents. The purpose is simple. By keeping the front windows up and pushing the vents out, you, whether you're in the front or the back, can get circulation without being blown to bits. 

With the new cars – for all I know it may be with all cars – there are no vents. And why? Somebody decided that in an accident they were unsafe, though it occurs to me that in an accident a motor car is unsafe. But some years ago, the issue came up before – you guessed it – a congressional committee and I'm told on fairly responsible authority that the manufacturers were ordered to stop making cars with vents. 

The name of Ralph Nader has been slipped to me in this connection but only by people with a built-in prejudice against consumer protection, ah, by people, I've noticed, who themselves make or sell some product which might be next on the suspect list of Nader's raiders. 

I think, and I'll say it right out, that Mr Nader is one of the more useful citizens of our time and while he has seemed to many manufacturers to be a maddening busybody, to the rest of us he has been often a better watchdog in the public interest than some congressional committees which exist for that purpose. I refuse to believe, except on the sworn testimony of Mr Nader himself, that he had anything to do with the witless banning of the vents. 

However, Mr Nader does not slumber neither does he nod. He's now up to something that promises almost unlimited protection for the simple citizen and nights of fret and torment for the managers of football clubs, for the breweries, for the packagers of hotdogs and those outdoor nurseries that rear artificial grass. I don't know if Mr Nader has ever appeared on the sports pages but he made it last Wednesday. 'Nader', the New York Times headlined, 'Nader Going to Bat for Sports Fans'. 

He and a young Washington lawyer have put together yet another consumer protection outfit. It carries the rather cumbersome name of 'The Fight to Advance the Nation's Sports' – but that's only so they can have a snappy acronym 'FANS'. In setting up FANS, Mr Nader said, with what at first looks like invincible logic, 'The owners of sports teams and the players have their own protection organisations, it's time the fans had one of their own.' 

He gave a simple example of the kind of thing he'll be up to. This summer the New York Mets traded a vastly popular baseball player to Cincinnati and all the Mets fans could do was go into mourning but Mr Nader knew what he and his outfit would have done if they'd existed last summer. He said they could have organised a protest boycott of the Mets' Stadium and probably cut attendance by 40 per cent. 

Anyone who thinks Mr Nader is dotty or whimsical to try and take on the owners of clubs ought to bone up on some of the homework Mr Nader has been boning up on. I shouldn't be surprised if the owners and managers of baseball clubs, football teams, tennis leagues, the lot, weren't already mobilising to march on Washington and pray for help from this latest sortie of Nader's Raiders. 

Washington, Mr Nader says, has a particularly nasty example of what he's hoping to correct. 'The Robert F Kennedy Stadium', he says, 'was built by the taxpayers but all of its 65,000 seats are sold on a seasonal basis only.' I think that means that you can't get tickets for a single game. Many of these seats are controlled year after year by the big corporations, some of them with as many as 50 seats at their disposal, to entertain the politicians. What chance does the ordinary taxpayer have to see the Redskins play there? I hasten to explain that the Redskins are not the aboriginals but the Washington home team. 

Now how do the brewers and the makers of hotdogs come into this? Well Mr Nader says the fans have a right to 'hot' hotdogs and cold beer. Suppose this crusade spreads to Britain! Imagine the lawsuits that would be handed out as dense as snowflakes to almost every pub in the British Isles! Maybe the British branch of FANS will rise against the demands of American tourists. Maybe they'll say the time has come to stop truckling to the colonials who want beer at the temperature of ice cream. Maybe they’ll assert the right of Britons to have warm beer. 

I don't know enough about English law to guess how successful a British branch of FANS might be. Since there's no written constitution it could well end with some judge just ruling off the top of his head that while there's no law which says a Briton must have warm beer, the preference of British beer drinkers is by now thoroughly grounded in the constitution and it would be a violation to serve cold beer. 

But if you think Mr Nader is being facetious you don't know the extreme flexibility of the United States' Constitution which has been shaken many times by issues less weighty than the right of the citizen to have a hot hotdog. Off the top of my head, I recall earth-shaking precedents that were challenged or supported by the Supreme Court. 

A man in a mining town in Nevada fell down on a broken board in a wooden sidewalk. He was drunk. Nevertheless, the court ruled that the Congress, way back there over a hundred years ago in passing a certain constitutional amendment, had just such a hazard in mind when they put forward the clause about the equal protection of the laws. A sidewalk must have boards as equally firm to support one drunk as a sidewalk that supports the ninety and nine just persons whose lips never touched the stuff. Is there a right not to have advertising piped at you in a public bus? Jefferson and Madison and company said yes. 

Nobody, until today, has asserted the right of an athlete to play football or golf on natural grass, but the fact is that many athletes turn their ankles on artificial turf and you may be sure that a test case will not be wanting. 

And Nader has only just begun to think up the possible victims of his latest assault. He says he will use every recourse known to consumer protection – public protests, boycotts, lobbying in Congress and court actions. I want to be present when the Supreme Court takes up the case of John Doe versus the Ever-hot Frankfurter Corporation. What article of the constitution will be controlling? Due process? The equal protection of the laws? I should guess it would come under the right of a citizen not to suffer cruel and unusual punishment. 

You may have read that since Congress has come back to work, since its brief summer recess, it's been slashing away at President Carter's bills and why aren't we talking about them? Well, it may be rather late in the day for an old reporter to say that there's a snag in reporting Washington which correspondents whose homeland has a parliamentary system ought to watch out for, but seldom do. We tend to rush in the moment the president sends a bill to Congress. It gets reported abroad as a herald of what's going to happen. Then there's a lapse, a long silence and then we find that what the president wanted to happen, didn't. 

In a parliamentary system, the government, if it very much wants to put through a bill, can get it passed in the house by one vote and it becomes law. And if the opposition doesn't like it, hates it, they have to wait till they get back in power to overturn it. But this is not the way laws are made and unmade in this country. We forget this. 

In January, at the start of a new Congress, and again in September, the newspapers print bold headlines about the president’s bold, new bills: 'President Will Ban the B-1', 'President to Cut Business Deductions in Tax Bill', 'President Proposes Drastic Restraints on Energy'. 

Yet these are, simply, splendid dreams in the president's head. They go to the Senate which debates them and cuts out provisions it doesn't like. The house does the same. Even if the Senate approves overwhelmingly, the house can always limit the amount of money to be appropriated for the new bill. Both houses can throw the whole thing out. In other words, the president proposes but the Congress disposes. 

And the president is, in the matter of law-making, infinitely less powerful than a Prime Minister because the president and the Congress were set up not as allies in government, but as natural enemies. The idea of the Founding Fathers was that an executive as strong as a prime minister might run the country. They believed that sense would prevail through the collision of different interests. 

Anyway, at the moment, Congress is slashing away at all the outer leaves of the present’s artichokes and he's praying that they’ll leave the heart. I'll let you know if and when big cars that use lots of petrol are going to be penalised at all. 

In the meantime, I'm going to get Nader to campaign for the right of a citizen to sit in the back seat of a car without suffering the cruel and unusual punishment of a choice between a furnace or a hurricane.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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