So SDSU has made an offer for the Mission Valley site: $68.2 million in cash at the close of the transaction. Supposedly, the plan is to build both a stadium and an Edenic river park with housing, classrooms, a research center, and I don’t know what all else. But in fact, this is all about football.
The timeline is apparently centered around the university’s desire to construct a new, 35,000-seat stadium in time for the 2022 NCAA football season. The classrooms and housing won’t get built for at least ten to fifteen years.
What’s wrong with this proposal? First, there’s football itself. SDSU is rushing to build a stadium to house a sport that report after report shows destroys the brain.
A recent article in Science described a study of the University of Rochester’s football players showing that just one season of football even without a concussion can cause significant brain damage: “Although only two of the 38 players received a concussion, more than two-thirds of them showed changes to the integrity of the white matter of their midbrains. Rotational hits—when a player’s helmet is struck by a glancing blow—were particularly bad for the midbrain’s white matter.” That’s the part of the brain that “governs primitive, thoughtless functions such as hearing and temperature regulation.” This is just one article. Google “football brain damage” and you get over 35 million hits.
So SDSU is rushing to build a stadium for a sport that endangers its players. Even worse, a solid proportion of those players are African-American. It seems that black lives matter, but not black brains.
Investing in football is also not a good idea because the sport is dying. According to Forbes Magazine, participation in high school football has been declining over the last decade, and in fact, outdoor track is now the most popular sport. Unsurprisingly, fewer and fewer people are attending football games, including the Super Bowl. Ticket prices for Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams declined 17% after they went on sale. Television ratings have fallen four years in a row. And last year’s game drew the lowest audience in more than a decade.
Season ticket sales for SDSU football’s 2019 season have also gone down 15% from the previous year. Of course, Rocky Long, the coach, blames the decline on the present stadium’s condition. Then again, Long’s salary is $826,304 (about twice as much as the president’s), so he would say that, wouldn’t he? And the downward slide in SDSU ticket sales tracks football’s general decline.
Then there’s the astonishing fact that— somehow—SDSU has $68.2 million in cash sitting around. Where could this money be better spent? The library is so woefully underfunded that they can’t buy books for over half the year because they have exhausted their pitifully small acquisitions budget. How small? $2 million. By way of contrast, Florida State’s library has an $8 million budget. The University of Arizona has $15 million.
Plus, the bathroom situation. So many of the men’s rooms have been shuttered that the city told the library administration if one more goes, the entire building has to be closed. The library’s stucco exterior is literally crumbling.
The money could also have been put toward lowering class sizes, which remain way too large for truly effective teaching. For example, my upper-division Shakespeare class has 35 students. And tenure-track hiring creeps along, even as the SDSU’s student body keeps increasing. In 2016, SDSU’s enrollment was 33,778. Today, the enrollment is 34,828.
Whenever we ask why budgets are so constrained, why the library is so underfunded, why the faculty are paid so little compared to their peers at equivalent institutions, the answer is always “financial exigency.” Yet the administration has, it seems, $68.2 million in cash at its disposal.
SDSU is presently undergoing the traditional ritual of coming up with a “strategic plan” to guide its future. So now would be an excellent time to take a hard look at football’s place.
The students generally don’t care. Fewer and fewer people are buying tickets. Football itself is declining in popularity, in good part because of the dangers it poses to its players.
I can’t imagine that any responsible businessperson would consider football a safe investment. As for the usual argument that it brings in donations, the answer is that those donations rarely, if ever, support the university’s academic mission, which is why we exist in the first place.
So why is SDSU rushing headlong to spend millions on a new stadium when the money could be better spent elsewhere?
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.