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Endangered Freebies

For an industry that produces free throws, free kicks, free drops, free agents, free safeties and freebasers--to say nothing of free spirits like World B. Free--sports gives us remarkably little for free. And those few pleasures that do cost nothing are increasingly in peril, with NFL training camps the latest addition to our Endangered Freebies list.

Just last week the corporation that manages the Minnesota Vikings' camp revealed plans to charge a $5 admission fee ($10 on Saturdays) for each of the team's summer practice sessions, something no other NFL team is doing. Two days later the Purple People-Bleeders canceled those plans after learning that, because they were selling tickets to their practices, opposing scouts would be eligible to attend. Still, it isn't hard to envision a future in which training camp joins the long list of things--like airline meals and directory assistance--that used to be free.

In sports, that list already includes autographs and handshakes (Barry Bonds participated in a meet-and-greet with fans last winter, charging $7,500 a head and $10,000 per couple), game telecasts (now usually on cable), radio broadcasts (on satellite outlets), rooftop views of Wrigley Field and even--say it ain't so--the pregame press buffet at some major league games. (In those ballparks, there really is no such a thing as a free lunch.)

More elementally, we now pay for air (when pumping a bicycle tire at the gas station). We purchase water (and avoid the gum-wad graveyard that is the ballpark drinking fountain). We even shell out for garbage: Some baseball teams sell the broken bats they used to throw away, to the dismay of Dumpster divers everywhere.

In short, there has never been a worse time to be an American cheapskate. Years ago the enterprising skinflint could literally steal a glimpse of a big league baseball game from a hilltop or four-story warehouse. While you can still watch the San Diego Padres play from a hill beyond right-centerfield or from the Western Metal Supply Company Building, which looms above leftfield, both hill and warehouse are inside Petco Park and thus require a ticket. Too many of our knotholes have been turned into Not-Holes.

Wanting something for nothing is deeply ingrained in the human race. It's why an athlete making eight figures is excited to receive unlimited sneakers, a dealer's car and $100 a day in meal money. Amid the buckets of bubble gum and cases of candy bars on display in most clubhouses, the average major leaguer really is a kid in a candy store.

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor availed himself of the team's psychologist not because he felt he needed one but rather because he was powerless to resist any service gratis. "If it's free, it's me," said Taylor, a line that has become a mantra among millionaire athletes.

Sure, there remains a handful of other experiences that don't cost a thing. Children under 16 are still admitted free to the British Open, perhaps the greatest giveaway in professional sports. It costs nothing to watch Lance Armstrong cycle past you in the Pyrenees. And tightwads on the street, peering between bars like prison lifers, can still see a sliver of centerfield at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

And then there are faux freebies, like the prize in your Cracker Jack or a souvenir foul ball, which give the illusion of being free but are contingent upon a previous purchase, not unlike the fleece blankets that are "free--with your paid subscription to Sports Illustrated." Now you pay a "convenience charge" of $3.50 to purchase a $15 Los Angeles Angels ticket through Ticketmaster. This is a distant relative of the $3 "delivery charge" that is added to the 18% "service charge" on hotel room-service bills, which still, mysteriously, leave a space for a tip.

Thousands of NFL season-ticket holders are also required to purchase a personal seat license to maintain the right to sit in the seat for which they hold a season ticket. Sitting has become so expensive an activity that we're not merely paying through the nose, but through another orifice as well.

And if you pay cash for tickets, you will likely have already paid to withdraw your own money from an ATM--or to speak to a teller in person. This is called getting nothing for something, freeloading's evil twin.

It's all so dispiriting that I ought to close with a funny story. But alas, even those are no longer free. Last spring Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady mentioned to me that he likes to tell humorous anecdotes when speaking to large groups. "Tell me one," I suggested, and Keady replied, "I can't tell you. I'd have to charge you $20,000." I laughed and waited for a story, but Keady was serious about his speaking fee and--after an awkward eternity of silence--changed the subject.

Which was certainly his prerogative. It is, after all, a free country. Or used to be.

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NFL training camp will most likely join the long list of things--like airline meals and directory assistance--that used to be free.