Every fall, when I fly to Ann Arbor to see my alma mater, the University of Michigan, play football, I find the planes there and back filled with passengers in baseball hats, track jackets, and T-shirts displaying their loyalty to U of M. Some of these fans have gray hair or little hair at all, while others are just out of diapers, being trained by their parents to sing “The Victors” and adorn themselves in maize and blue.
Some of us are reconnecting to our college days. Others, like me, have Wolverine roots that go back even further. I attended my first Michigan football game when I was four years old.
As a football tourist, I consider myself something of a minor leaguer, even though, in addition to my annual pilgrimage to Ann Arbor, I’ve followed the Wolverine football team to Chicago, Tampa, New Orleans, Hawaii, and most memorably a 1997 trip to Pasadena, when they won their most recent national championship.
My journeys pale in comparison to those of my brother, who flies up to Michigan from North Carolina for every home game, or our dentist, who attends both home and away games, even braving the rabid Wolverine haters of Ohio State when our team faces its arch-rival in Columbus.
But if Michigan football is akin to a religion, then this is a year of shocking apostasy.
Entering Michigan Stadium on Homecoming weekend to watch the Wolverines take on the lowly Indiana Hoosiers, I was floored by how many empty seats there were in the largest football stadium in the country, with an official capacity of almost 110,000, though it used to regularly exceed that number.
In the fourth quarter, an announcement came over the loudspeaker claiming 103,111 people had shown up to the game, which was met by boos and jeering from the sparsely populated stands.
I’ve heard various theories as to why attendance this season has been so lackluster: this year’s unappealing schedule coupled with this year’s underperforming team, the difficulty of tearing Millennial students away from their screens in their dorm rooms, rising ticket prices, not to mention the crass commercialism of the university’s embattled athletic director David Brandon (who had just resigned the day before I arrived for the game).
All of these explanations are plausible enough. And yet an hour and a half to the north, where Michigan’s rival Michigan State sits proudly atop the Big Ten rankings, attendance is a problem as well. In fact, according to a story on CBSSports.com, after the first five weeks of this college football season, attendance has been down 1% overall, down 7% at Michigan, down 20% at Miami, and down a whopping 36% at Purdue.
Recently, I read another story in the New York Times, showing that in states that voted for President Obama (primarily in the Midwest and Northeast), participation in high-school football is on the decline. As the story noted, even Obama himself said if he had a son, he wouldn’t let him play football.
Should these factoids be chalked up to an aberrant season, or are they part of a larger trend, a symptom of America’s changing relationship with what might plausibly be argued is its national sport?
In recent years, pro football players like Ray Rice or Aaron Hernandez make headlines for crimes rather than touchdowns. On the college level, the Jerry Sandusky scandal was closely followed by disturbing stories about the past two Heisman Trophy winners, one a simple matter of greed, the other involving charges that an accusation of rape was hushed up by the university to keep its star player on the field.
Also disturbing are the stories of the severe injuries suffered by players, particularly to their brains. We’re not just talking about professionals after a lifetime in the game. This year, Michigan quarterback Shane Morris made national news when he was sent in to play after suffering a concussion. After some hedging, Michigan’s athletic director admitted Morris had suffered what he called a ‘mild’ concussion. In fact, as Eric Winston, president of the NFL Players Association, has pointed out, concussions don’t come in the ‘mild’ variety.
Then again, it could have been worse. In October, a high-school kid in Virginia died after being hit while playing football.
In his recent book Against Football, literary writer Steve Almond explores issues like these as he examines the darker side of the gridiron. His conclusion? Given the various hypocrisies and dangers of the sport, longtime fan Almond decides he can no longer watch football with a clear conscience.
As I watched Michigan decimate Indiana 34–10, I kept thinking of the issues raised by Almond’s book, particularly while watching a player go down on the field during the Michigan game. Eventually the injured player was helped off the field, to a round of applause from the audience, and yet I felt what we were watching wasn’t a happy ending. It’s a scene that repeats every weekend during the fall.
Are we turning our young people into modern gladiators for our entertainment?
And yet, I’m struck by a passage in Almond’s book describing a doctor who specializes in brain injuries. After she explains to Almond the terrible aftereffects of playing the sport, she confesses she’s still a fan, for reasons she can’t quite explain.
I too am not ready to quit football. I love the intricate ballet of watching 11 men on the field perform in unison, the deliberate misdirection of a reverse or a play-action pass, or the drama of a last-second field goal.
At the same time, I think we need a rethinking of the sport. Back at the beginning of the last century, when football was even more brutal than it is now, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to usher reforms that have been credited with saving football, changing its rules to make it safer for the players. Perhaps at the beginning of our century, it’s time for football to undergo a similar kind of intervention and reinvention.