The football debates

footballBy Steve Brawner

The Razorbacks are playing only one game at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium this year and next, while the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is considering starting its own team to play there. Meanwhile, in light of recent studies regarding football’s risks, some parents are wondering if they should let their children play football at all.

I guess the question for everybody is, are football’s benefits worth the costs?

The first Razorback game at War Memorial Stadium was played in 1948. Since then the relationship has strengthened the football program’s and the university’s ties with the rest of the state. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks have been the biggest draw for the aging stadium, now the responsibility of the Department of Parks and Tourism under Act 269 passed by the Legislature this year.

Razorbacks out, Trojans in?

Now the UA clearly wants to end the relationship because it can make more money playing in Fayetteville or elsewhere. That’s why the Razorbacks are playing only one game this year and next in Little Rock, and then the contract ends with an uncertain future. Adding to the urgency is a $160 million renovation to Fayetteville’s Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It’s largely debt-financed for the purpose of building luxury seats. Ticket sales help pay those debts.

So what can be done to put rear ends in War Memorial’s not-so-luxurious seats? The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is spending somewhere under $100,000 to study starting a program of its own. It’s one of only two Sun Belt Conference programs without one.

A football team would merit coverage somewhere after all the Razorback news has been told. But, by keeping the university’s name before the public, those snippets help recruit students and generate donations. To some degree, it might strengthen the relationship between the city and UA Little Rock, as the university now wants to be called rather than UALR.

But football programs cost big money to start and operate, and a Trojan football team would develop only a modest following. Taxpayers and student athletic fees likely would pay some of the costs. UA Little Rock undergraduate students already pay $21 per credit hour for those whether they ever attend a game. Also, in fiscal year 2016 the university spent on athletics $2.6 million in unrestricted educational and general funds that come primarily from student tuition and state funds. In contrast, the UA is one of only a couple dozen major college athletic departments nationwide – and the only one in state – that pays for itself and therefore does not charge student athletic fees or dip into other funds.

Brain injury risks

While War Memorial Stadium and UA Little Rock are asking if more football is needed, some parents must be asking if their children need less, or none. Football has always been risky, but we now know that playing it at higher levels – the NFL and also college – carries with it a risk for brain issues such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Among its victims was Ronnie Caveness, who played for the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team and in the NFL.

Of course, there are also risks involved when young people lack positive activities and role models, which is why the Little Rock School District is restarting its sixth grade football program with a strong character-building component under the leadership of Dr. Fitz Hill and Marcus Elliott.

No doubt many youngsters will benefit, so hats off to those two men.

At some point in the aging process, however, football becomes a game humans aren’t supposed to play, as Buffalo Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said in an interview. Americans are accustomed to seeing young men carried off fields with serious injuries. Now we have to wonder if the worst are hidden inside the helmets.

For the Razorbacks, it’s never a question of fewer football games – it’s only a question of where they’re played. For War Memorial Stadium and for UA Little Rock, it’s more complicated. The stadium will have a lot of empty seats. A Trojan team would fill some of them five or six times a year.

The question for that university is, are football’s benefits worth the costs? That’s a debate more and more people are having, and coming to different conclusions for different reasons.

Related: Walking away from the game.

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

3 thoughts on “The football debates

  1. Steve:
    My only son is now 15 years old and in the 9th grade. While I graduated high school at 5’9″ and 140lbs, my son stands 6’2″ and is 180lbs, wearing a size 13 shoe, all of which comes courtesy of his mother’s genetics. My son would love nothing more than to put on the football pads and take advantage of his size advantage over most of his peers but he’s out this season wearing a very unfashionable back brace due to a fractured L5 vertebra. We aren’t sure if he fractured his vertebra during off-season lifting, while pitching for his baseball team or what. But back issues for life obviously aren’t worth any amount of glory to be found on the 9th grade football field.
    As a parent, it was harder than I anticipated seeing him on the sideline with his team but unable to play, particularly when his team was struggling. That being said, I have to admit that I’m not terribly upset about him missing the football season in light of all that we’re learning about concussions. A little part of me hopes that he discovers all of the fall activities that are often precluded by football and decides to focus exclusively on baseball where I think he has at least a collegiate future and certainly a much lower risk of concussions.
    On a personal note, just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your articles. Keep up the good work.

  2. I think a football program would not be worth the extreme expense to this university. Also, when Mike Ditka now says he wouldn’t want his son playing, folks ought to listen. No amount of equipment improvements can adequately protect the neck and brain, not to mention the joints. Virtually 100% of former pro players have serious health problems. The human body isn’t made to take this kind of trauma.

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