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, and 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.
Now the Arkansas Athletic Department 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 that’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? UALR 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 UALR.
But football programs cost big money to start and operate, and a Trojan football team would develop only a modest following. Some costs likely would be paid by taxpayers and through student athletic fees. UALR 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, Arkansas 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.
While War Memorial Stadium and UALR 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 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 UALR, 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.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.