Losing It

12/08/1957 SanFrancisco 49ers vs Colts .. Fans on rooftops behind Kezar Stadium

 

I found professional football a wondrous thing when I was first introduced to it, back in the 1960s.

Games between near-mythic gladiators were listened to on the radio, or read about in Monday’s newspaper, where reporters used the power of language to bring readers into the experience and atmosphere of the game. Home games weren’t broadcast on TV in that dark era, so it was either attend in person, listen on radio, or read about it. The networks only broadcast top-tier games on TV and our Forty-Niners weren’t in the top-tier in those days, not even close. When they played the NFL’s best teams (and weren’t home) we could have the pleasure of seeing them go down to ignominious defeat live.

When home in those days, the Forty-Niners played in Kezar Stadium, named for city benefactress Mary Kezar, which sat at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park and adjoined a quaint residential neighborhood of Victorian homes. It was just down the hill from the University of San Francisco, which supplied some of the team’s early stars, and was as close to the geographic center of town as was possible to find for construction of a football stadium. Regular attendees knew not to drive there – such was madness. They walked, or took a bus.

The turf, maintained by the city’s parks and recreation department, was often muddy and brown. All the seats were plain wooden benches. Food was modest. Beer was cheap and free-flowing. Fans were the local hoi polloi. But when you were at Kezar, you knew damn well you were in San Francisco, watching the local boys play some football.

Kezar wasn’t luxe in any sense of the word but it was intimate. Fans were on top of the field and each other. A community was created every home game day. Season ticket holders became family with one another and, by the end of any game, with more casual attendees as well.

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And, by God, the Forty-Niners, although never big winners at Kezar, were always quirky originals and fun to watch.  On the offensive side of the ball, John Brodie, Ted Kwalick, Gene Washington. On the defense, there was Dave Wilcox, Rosie Taylor, Jimmie Johnson, Mel Phillips. Most players, certainly those without marquee status and million-dollar contracts, had off-season employment or owned small local businesses.

The team of that era and the place they played football couldn’t be any more different than today’s Forty-Niners or their stadium, sitting as it does in the midst of low-rise corporate office buildings, the Santa Clara Convention Center, a moat-like parking expanse and a dull and aging amusement park. The setting is classic American suburban, therefore automobile-based. Parking lots of various sizes encircle the stadium like the camps of a besieging army.

The stadium itself was all I imagined it to be from reading about it and seeing it on television – plastic, generic, electronic, corporate. The slope of the stands make most seats feel farther from the field than they are. Openings on the northern and southern ends dissipated fan noise and connection to the game and each other. Big screens broadcasting field action live compensate for poor visibility. Corporate logos are everywhere.

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The architectural feature that dominates the stadium is the luxury suite/press box building, essentially a non-descript soulless high-rise of glass and metal, which could be any of the surrounding Santa Clara office buildings, or, really, any corporate campus building in Anywhere, USA.

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In short, there is no sense of particular place or setting.

The economics of professional sports have changed since the 1960s, to be sure. The NFL, itself a nonprofit institution that earns over $12 billion in revenue from ticket sales and merchandizing, takes in additional $billions in corporate sponsorships, in-kind contributions and underwriting – and that amount is expected to grow 5% in the coming year. The average NFL team is worth something like $2 billion.

Running that sort of business requires commitment to amenities for sponsors and fans: luxury boxes, gourmet food, (gasp) seats with backs. And it requires maximizing revenue through instruments like seat licenses, high season ticket prices and fees. So, in a perverse way, it is altogether fitting for an organization like that to do its business inside something like Levi’s Stadium.

In that narrow way, the place is perfection, unlike, of course, the team that plays there.

In every way, the San Francisco Forty-Niners football team I saw last weekend were the worst possible exemplars of American football. No quirkiness. No drama. No dash. No personality. No fun. Rudderless. Aimless. Passionless. Unsuccessful and unengaged.

The Forty-Niners are awash in logos but drifting away from the very characteristics that made them, and the game they play, so special.

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Big-Time College Sports: Time to Kill or Be Killed

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It was a running joke my uncle the priest came to tell his parishioners every Super Bowl Sunday, especially during those years the hometown 49ers were so often represented in the NFL’s championship game. “I will work quickly and end early today,” he’d quip, “so you can get to the worship of America’s real national religion, football.”

And, as is the case for all good humor, his foundation wasn’t that far from the truth. Professional sport has become a well-loved and financially well-supported industry in this country. But even as big money can, God knows, create good entertainment, it also has the potential to twist and corrupt. If you’ve been paying attention to either news or sports recently, that can’t be any kind of surprise at all.

Potential corruption of pros by professional-scale money is one thing – we’d almost expect there to be some toxic spillover in for-profit entertainment enterprises – but the effects of big-time sports money on amateur sport is something else again. The money that’s come to American colleges and universities from running sports entertainment businesses has had seriously pernicious effects on what are still (nominally, at least) institutions of higher learning.

Here’s a table showing the top 20 sports revenue-producing institutions of higher learning, as of 2008. [Note how many of the top 20 are public and, therefore, publicly-funded institutions.] This is serious dough. Just to get some sense of this scale, the top performers on this list make about as much in revenue as tech-sector stand-outs like Pandora and LinkedIn.

Rank Team Total Revenue
1 Alabama

123,769,841

2 Texas

120,288,370

3 Ohio State

115,737,022

4 Florida

106,607,895

5 Tennessee

101,806,196

6 Michigan

99,027,105

7 Oklahoma State

98,874,092

8 Wisconsin

95,118,124

9 Texas A&M

92,476,146

10 Penn State

91,570,233

11 Auburn

89,311,824

12 Georgia

85,554,395

13 LSU

85,018,205

14 Notre Dame

83,352,439

15 Kansas

82,976,047

16 Iowa

81,515,865

17 Michigan

81,390,686

18 Oklahoma

77,098,008

19 Stanford

76,661,466

20 USC

76,409,919

[Source: ESPN, 2008]

This kind of money drives distorting behaviors. And to protect this revenue stream, significant measures are often taken. As just one example, the University of Maryland recently paid $2 million to buy out the contract of its football coach (then carrying a losing win-loss record), then hire a new coach for an annual salary of an additional $2 million. In outlining his rationale for making these moves, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, asserted his belief that, “intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment.” [Source: Forbes]

Baylor Bears vs. Kansas Jayhawks - January 16, 2012

In 2010, the 44 public universities with teams in the 5 most established athletic conferences (e.g., PAC-12, Big Ten) paid their head football coaches an average salary of over $2 million, well above the average salary of anyone else on campus [Source: Wall Street Journal], much less those who actually deliver on schools’ educational mission, the faculty.

Investment in big-time athletics might pay off for their host institutions financially, but data show the academic returns are mixed. At one time, student-athletes (the very name sounds anachronistic today) participated in revenue-producing and spirit-building athletics in exchange for the promise of a college degree. As big-time sports programs rake in the cash, and many athletes have come to focus almost exclusively on athletics and bail out of college early to join their sports’ professional ranks, that notion is being re-examined.

In fact, there is a large gap between the academic achievement levels of student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts at many schools. So, in reality, where is the benefit promised players? This calls into question whether schools running big-time sports programs are unfairly and handsomely benefitting from labor that is essentially free, and many have called for student-athletes to be paid. The schools with the largest difference in graduation rates between athletes (football players, in this case) and non-athletes, including, in the top position, to my shame, one of my beloved alma maters, are listed in the table, below.

Difference in Graduation Rates Between Football Players and All Students
Major Programs

 

Football Players

All Students

Difference

California

54%

90%

-36%

UCLA

59%

90%

-31%

USC

61%

87%

-26%

Virginia

68%

93%

-25%

Georgia Tech

55%

79%

-24%

Texas

57%

79%

-22%

Maryland

59%

81%

-22%

BYU

57%

78%

-21%

Texas A&M

59%

79%

-20%

Michigan

71%

89%

-18%

Clemson

62%

78%

-16%

Oklahoma

48%

63%

-15%

Florida St.

56%

71%

-15%

North Carolina St.

56%

71%

-15%

Wisconsin

66%

81%

-15%

Duke University economist (and a former teacher of mine) Charles Clotfelter, wrote a book about the conundrum this kind of imbalance presents to America’s colleges. Unsurprisingly, he finds deep unease. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, thinks sports an expensive side-show for schools: “Educational institutions have absolutely no business operating farm systems for the benefit of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.” James Duderstadt, the University of Michigan’s former president agrees: “Big-time college athletics has little to do with the nature or objectives of the contemporary university. Instead, it is a commercial venture, aimed primarily at providing public entertainment.”

Educational institutions running big-time sports programs bear great risks. They reap potentially huge revenues from their programs that reward activities not part of their core educational purpose. Priorities are skewed. While academic programs starve, state-of-the-art athletic facilities are built and coaches wallow in cash. Other than coaches, the main beneficiaries of these sports programs are professional football and basketball leagues, who harvest generation after generation of athletes trained and polished at mostly public expense. Furthermore, these schools benefit from the free labor of their students, who are not allowed to accept income and, increasingly, do not even benefit academically from their work.

A well-known and successful college basketball coach talked about his program’s essential independence from his host institution (not to mention his own obvious disdain for academic authority): “We’re not even really part of the school anymore, anyway…you think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do?” [Source: New York Times]

In the long run, this is an unsustainable situation. Colleges must get out of the big-time sports entertainment business if they are to keep alive any hope of fulfilling their educational missions. In the end, these enterprises are not worthy of the institutions these programs still (nominally) represent.

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