By Peter C. Herman
On Friday the San Diego City Council will, in a special session, consider the contract San Diego State University dropped on them a few weeks ago, and chances are the council will accept the deal. Most of the discussion around SDSU Mission Valley has centered on whether this project is good for the city. There has been little to no discussion as to whether this project will be good for SDSU. Let me count the ways it is not.
First, football is a dying sport. As a recent article in Forbes puts it, “the decline of football is real, and it’s accelerating.” Both youth (6-12) and high school participation are down significantly, and the audience for the Super Bowl lost 12.5 million viewers from 2011 to 2019.
The reasons why are not hard to find. Football is an extremely dangerous sport that can cause long-term neurological damage. Consequently, more and more parents and their children choose to play something that doesn’t risk permanent brain damage. Even those who escape injury have a hard time confining to the field the violence and aggression football requires. Professional and college football has an ugly history of violence against women and host of other crimes, including rape and murder.
So, building a stadium to house football is not only bad policy, it is fundamentally immoral. SDSU is putting students in harm’s way for the delectation of an audience. This is not a sport, it’s a gladiator contest.
The other arguments for SDSU Mission Valley also do not stand up to scrutiny. The notion that football is necessary for promoting SDSU’s “brand” is nonsense. First, last year, more than 94,000 students applied for admission to SDSU. There is zero evidence that they were motivated by football, or that the numbers would go down if football were eliminated.
Football is hardly central to SDSU’s identity. Few students bother to attend either football or basketball games. Last year, the Viejas Arena was half-full, and sales of football tickets have also dropped precipitously. Nor is football essential to San Diego. Remember all the predictions of doom and gloom if the Chargers left? Has anyone noticed their absence?
The promotional materials for SDSU Mission Valley claim that the project is not just about football, that it’s also an opportunity for SDSU to expand its educational programs and accommodate 15,000 more students. But despite the proposed contract including numerous benchmarks, e.g., at least 10% of the housing will be reserved for households earning 60% of the area’s median income, there are no benchmarks for educational purposes.
Even worse, SDSU vigorously resisted reserving any percentage of the development for classrooms and the like. So, there is a significant risk that SDSU will be “predominantly a private development project,” as City Attorney Mara Elliott warns in her report on the draft agreement.
Finally, there’s the economy. The coronavirus pandemic has devastated California’s economy. The estimated unemployment rate is 20%, far higher than the national average. We face a $54 billion budget shortfall, resulting in a 10% funding reduction for the CSU and the University of California. That means $398 million less to run the largest public university system in the country. SDSU plans to borrow nearly that amount ($350 million) to build the stadium. So at the same time the university faces massive cutbacks, they plan to go into debt for a sport that few watch and destroys the brain.
Adding insult to injury, SDSU has a massive backlog of deferred maintenance that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to work through. Roofs are collapsing. AC units need replacing. Pipes leak. The library’s exterior is literally crumbling. The bathrooms still haven’t been repaired.
If SDSU cannot maintain its present infrastructure, how will the administration take proper care of a new stadium, a park, and new buildings? Or will they shift resources to their shiny new toy, leaving the rest of the campus to fall apart?
In a recent editorial, the Union-Tribune reminded its readers that the city has good reasons for not rushing into this deal. “City Hall has a long and costly history of major mistakes because it hasn’t sweated the details,” and one of the chief proponents of Mission Valley West, Jack McGrory, is responsible for a few of those major mistakes.
The City Council should take a step back and ask hard questions about SDSU Mission Valley. They might not like the answers.
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.
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