By Peter C. Herman
A few days ago a story appeared without fanfare on San Diego State University’s offical NewsCenter website: “SDSU Unveils Details For an NFL Stadium in Mission Valley.” There was no announcement to the denizens of SDSU, and I learned about this revision of the university’s plans from news reports.
For those who missed it (meaning probably everybody at SDSU), the proposed stadium would offer “a future San Diego NFL owner the opportunity to partner on a state-of-the-art professional football stadium in the center of San Diego.” The plans seem to call for a giant party bus: “The stadium interior would feature more than 82 suites, including field level, lower bowl sideline and upper sidelines, five different club sections (totaling approximately 6,500 seats), 50 loge boxes with lounge access, two end zone party decks and six exterior balconies.”
While the plan makes passing reference to other sports, concerts, and “community events,” make no mistake — the main purpose is bringing back NFL football to San Diego.
Which of course was not the plan when SDSU West was first raised. Supposedly, the Aztecs needed a home, and SDSU needed more space, so why not combine the two in Mission Valley? Not any more.
I’m not going to detail about how football sucks money from academics without giving anything back, or how coaches get paid gargantuan salaries while the faculty go begging. That’s been done before.
Instead, it’s football itself that makes the latest iteration of SDSU West a very bad idea. Because football is a dying sport.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in January 2018 showed a prolonged and shocking decline in football’s popularity. In 2014, 58 percent of respondents said they followed the game closely. In 2018, that number dropped to 49 percent, a nine point fall. “Among white men, the ‘follow closely’ number has declined an astonishing 22 points, from 69 percent in 2014 to 47 percent in 2018.”
Football’s television audience also is shrinking. The viewers for the 2017 season were down 9.7 percent from the previous year, which also declined from the year before.
The next generation of football fans is also shrinking because fewer and fewer parents want their kids playing the game, mainly due to concerns over concussions. The same poll showed that 48 percent of parents would encourage their child to play a sport other than football out of concussion concerns, up from 40 percent four years ago.
While football may seem to rule American sports, that will likely change in the future, as fewer people are watching the game, and fewer want their children playing tackle football. Investing hundreds of millions to build a new stadium would be like investing tons of money in the buggy whip business around the turn of the twentieth century.
As Danny Devito’s character in Other People’s Money says, “I’m sure the last remaining buggy whip company made a hell of a product. But would you want to invest in it?”
Why the decline?
One reason is that football destroys the brain. More and more retired players who have suffered concussions show signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that causes memory problems, depression, and dementia. Last year, a neuropathologist examined the brains of 112 deceased NFL players; 111 had CTE.
Emily Kelly, wife of retired safety Rob Kelly, detailed for the New York Times the effects of football-inflicted brain damage on her husband: “He was losing touch with reality and was getting more and more paranoid … He went from being a devoted and loving father and husband to someone who felt like a ghost in our home. For a couple of months one winter he was so depressed and detached, he couldn’t muster up the energy to speak.”
So no wonder more and more parents want to keep their kids away from football. Recently a divorced father went to family court to keep his youngest son from playing high school football.
Then there’s the connection between football and arrests for domestic violence. In 2014, a video showed Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his girlfriend, and there are many other examples.
Violence also begets violence: a 2011 study showed that 911 calls reporting assaults by men on their female partners rise by about 10 percent after NFL upsets.
So it’s hard to understand why SDSU wants to lure back a sport that damages its players, encourages domestic violence, and has a declining audience.
The argument can’t be economics. Despite the warnings on how the departure of the Chargers (remember them?) would cause San Diego’s economy to crater, in fact, the last report showed an unemployment rate of just 3.6 percent (the national average is 4.5 percent; California’s is 4.6 percent). So the city is doing just fine without professional football.
Most likely the reason is an over-allegiance to the past. Football has traditionally been a major fund-raising driver for the university (never mind that the money never seems to fund academics), and there’s the vestigial memory of having a professional football team here.
But just as it does with its academic programs—for example, the new Digital Humanities Center just opened—SDSU needs to look to the future, not the past.
And football, for all sorts of good reasons, is not the future.