A kick in the seats for students
College kids at the University of Washington are getting the shaft at Husky Stadium
I've covered sporting events in subzero weather where the ink literally froze in my pen and I couldn't write. But enough about the World Series.
The worst weather I endured at a sporting event was the USC-Washington football game at Husky Stadium my sophomore year of college. A massive storm hit Seattle that day with torrential rains and near-hurricane winds so fierce that, as columnist Jim Murray famously put it, "even the toilet bowls had whitecaps." I protected myself as best as I could by wearing a plastic San Francisco Giants batting helmet and an old, Gloucester fisherman-style rain jacket my brother-in-law wore one year while salmon fishing in Alaska. Because the student section was festival seating, a friend and I arrived hours before kickoff to battle the fraternities for a spot near the 40-yard-line. (At one point, my batting helmet blew off and I had to retrieve it by the goal line.) We all huddled together, cheering our team to a dramatic victory and getting so soaked that my shoes still squish when I walk.
It was the happiest, most glorious day of my college career.
I bring this up because my alma mater is about to ruin the game-day experience at Washington. As part of the plan for a $250 million Husky Stadium renovation (guess who gets to pay the bill!), the UW athletic department will move the student section. It currently runs from midfield down toward the east goal line. The department plans to move it behind the east end zone.
The athletic department is doing this so it can sell the current student-section seats for a lot more money to older (i.e., wealthier) non-students who aren't on daily macaroni-and-cheese diets. Worse, athletic director Scott Woodward insulted the students' intelligence by saying, "They are really getting a bonanza." Yes, he called it a bonanza. Sure it is, Scott! And the nearly 30 percent rise in tuition over the past two years is a gift to students that just keeps on giving!
Why do I care? Why does it bother me as an alumnus that the Huskies are opening up thousands of prime seats to myself and fellow older fans? Here's why. Because when the students get hosed, the spray soaks the rest of us as well. The essence of college sports is that first word: college. Without the students -- which also means the band and the cheerleaders -- you don't have college football anymore. You just have a slower, less talented NFL game without the fantasy leagues.
Students are crucial to the game-day atmosphere. One of the few ways left to recapture our youth is listening to the marching band play songs that were last popular a decade before we moved into our dorms. (The Husky band played Lady Gaga at a recent game, and I feared the NCAA would slap us with a two-season bowl ban for the performance of a song written within the past 20 years.) Singing your college fight song is medically proven to make you six months younger, and watching the cheerleaders dance is way more effective than Viagra or Cialis.
But for that to happen, you need the students front and center and involved. You can't have them sitting behind the end zone so far away that you can't hear them chant "OREGON SUCKS!" or make out the Chi Omega symbols on a coed's sweater.
You need the students' energy, their passion, their willingness to paint their faces and bare their chests and projectile-vomit on each other after drinking a half-rack of Schaefer. ("The beer to drink when you're drinking more than eight!") Moving the students (and the band and the cheerleaders) to the end zone is like unplugging the amps at a U2 concert. It ruins everything.
Move the students behind the end zone? What's next? Sell the seats in Texas A&M's student section ("Hey, they aren't sitting in them anyway") until so few students are left it becomes home to the legendary Eighth Man? Eliminate the marching band so the 100 biggest department donors can spell out script Ohio? Replace the USC song girls with the Pasadena chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution?
(I was about to ask whether they plan to replace the players with non-students, but many schools essentially have done that already.)
Moving the student section to worse seats is also short-sighted. Although it might increase revenue now, it will hurt in the future because students will not enjoy the game-day atmosphere as much from behind the end zone; therefore, they will not grow into passionate, rich boosters eager to donate ridiculous sums to the program. Getting up early and enduring whatever Mother Nature delivers to secure a good seat near midfield is a cherished part of my college experience. "How's the attitude in the Green Section?" was as much a call to arms for students in my day as "unlimited texting!" is to today's generation. And we would not have felt that way had we been treated like second-class citizens behind the end zone.
Schools should not crap on their future fan bases! That might be a valuable life lesson for the students, but it's still bad business. It's like social security -- you need the students to fund the program after they graduate.
Besides, I have a better approach for raising stadium revenue. Rather than shoving the students behind the end zone, keep them where they are and raise even more money by renting out that section for undergrads to live in throughout the school year. Students have proved all across the country that they are perfectly willing to camp outside athletic facilities in horrible weather to get tickets. They would gladly live inside stadiums to secure their tickets for better seats. Just think of the awesome parties you could hold at the Big House -- you could invite 110,000 of your closest friends! (Although sorting out the monthly utility bills could be a nightmare.)
Schools wouldn't have to invest much, either -- just provide free wi-fi and some tables for beer pong, spread out a few stained mattresses and keep enough concession stands open late to serve pizza. To paraphrase Woodward, that truly would be a bonanza for students. Their living conditions would be just as good -- and in some cases, better -- than most student housing.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at jimcaple.
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