Political Powerhouse UMass Goes for Gridiron Glory in Precisely the Wrong Era

Friday, January 25, 2013

The greatest athletic and advertising extravaganza known to man is almost upon us, Super Bowl XLVII.
So naturally it’s time to pose some heretical questions:
Has football peaked?
Has our nation’s most popular sport begun a slow slide that will end, many years hence, in afterthought status, as happened to horse racing and boxing?
More saliently, has the brain trust at the University of Massachusetts, a formidable redoubt of political power in this state, made a misguided bet on expanding their football program?
And if they have bet wrong, squandering taxpayer dollars in the process, money that could have gone to improve other aspects of life in the far-flung UMass empire, such as education, who if anyone will take the fall for that?
Football is in trouble in America because, it turns out, football is dangerous as hell. 
With each passing year, medical science uncovers more of the facts of how a significant percentage of pro football players have sustained permanent brain damage as a result of concussions.
When two very large, athletically gifted, fearless men run into each other at top speed on a football field, the consequences can be really ugly, as we saw this past Sunday night when Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was literally knocked out by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard.
The ball dropped from Ridley’s hands like a stuffed animal from a sleepy toddler’s lap.  Baltimore recovered the fumble and the game was basically over for New England.  Next day, sportswriters accurately pointed to Baltimore’s “toughness” as the key ingredient of their upset win over our former Super Bowl champs. 
No team can prevail in the National Football League (NFL) playoffs without being gladiator tough.  We specify the number of each Super Bowl in Roman numerals for good reason.
Given the seriousness and prevalence of injuries produced by football violence, it’s legitimate to ask why so many universities have eagerly turned themselves into breeding grounds for pro football players.  And for us to ask why UMass is trying to evolve from minor to major breeder.
Of course, that’s not how UMass officials described it when they announced their decision to move the team up to the elite Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) by playing in the Mid-American Athletic Conference, starting with the 2012 season.  They promoted it as a way to increase alumni interest in the team, sell more tickets to football games, and generate more revenue to support athletics in general. 
Accordingly, the team moved its home games from McGuirk Alumni Stadium on the Amherst campus to the Foxborough home of the Patriots, Gillette Stadium, which has seating for almost 70,000 fans.
Since the highest concentration of UMass alumni is in Eastern Massachusetts, university leaders hoped that droves of alumni would go to Foxborough, whereas alumni attendance in Amherst had traditionally been modest to light, especially considering how many graduates reside in Massachusetts and bordering states.
It didn’t turn out that way, not even close. 
For the first home game at Gillette, only 10,846 tickets were sold; by the last, that number had dropped to 6,385.  Contrast that with average home attendance at McGuirk over the seasons from 2007 to 2011: 13,937.
To make matters worse, the team flopped in the higher division, winning only one game in 2012 and losing 11.  Also, lower-than-expected ticket sales created a deficit in the football budget that had to be covered by a mid-fiscal-year injection of $715,000 from the university.
By the end of the season, the Faculty Senate at UMass was officially pissed off at the school’s costly stab at gridiron glory.  You’d have thought they were on steroids, the professors were so angry.
An “Ad Hoc Committee on FBS” of the Faculty Senate issued a report claiming the actual cost to taxpayers of the football program in 2012 was not $7.1 million, as indicated in the athletic department budget, but $8.2 million.
In early December, the Faculty Senate entertained a motion calling upon the administration “to immediately consider reversing the decision to play FBS football” and directing its Rules Committee and ad hoc committee “to work with the Chancellor and President to develop a plan for withdrawal from FBS football to be presented to the full Faculty Senate at its first spring semester meeting...”
The motion was debated at length but the meeting ended with no conclusive action on it.  Such is the nature of disputes in academia.
Among those attending the meeting, and who were quoted by The Republican newspaper of Springfield, was the president of the Student Government Association, who said, predictably, “It’s not always about money.  You can’t put a price on school spirit.”
Indeed.  Nor can you put a price on health or life itself.
No player I ever watched had more spirit, more love for the game, than Junior Seau, NFL linebacker extraordinaire and Bill Belichick favorite.  Last year, the seemingly laid back Seau took his own life at the age of 43. Post-mortem tests of his brain uncovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.  (Before we knew it as CTE, we called this condition “punch drunk.”)  CTE sufferers are prone to depression.
On Wednesday, members of Seau’s family filed a lawsuit against the NFL and a manufacturer of football helmets, asserting they concealed information on the link between head hits and long-term brain damage.
According to the New York Times, the Seau family “said the league not only ‘propagated the false myth that collisions of all kinds, including brutal and ferocious collisions, many of which lead to short-term and long-term neurological damage to players, are an acceptable, desired and natural consequence of the game,’ but also that ‘the NFL failed to disseminate to then-current and former NFL players health information it possessed’ about the risks associated with brain trauma.”
This will not be the last lawsuit like this.  Eventually, one will be successful, and from that date, we will count steps to the demise of the NFL as we have known and loved it -- and of the college teams that have witlessly served as nurseries to the NFL beast, in many cases with public subsidies.
The harder UMass tries to play with the big boys of college football, the bigger the target it becomes in a nationwide pool of potential defendants in CTE-related lawsuits.   Big-time state university plus big-time football equals poor public policy.
CORRECTION: In a recent post on the selection of an interim Suffolk County sheriff, I stated inaccurately that the appointee would automatically serve the four years remaining on the previous sheriff’s term; in other words, until 2016. (“With Plums as Juicy as Sheriff to Bestow, It’s Good to Be the Governor,” 12/31/13.)  In fact, the interim sheriff, if he wants to keep the job for the four unexpired years, must run and prevail in the 2014 elections.  I apologize for this sloppy error and for any confusion it caused.

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