Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Calvin Football: Deciding is the Biggest Obstacle

We love to talk about Calvin football. Nothing is imminent, but once or twice a year, the pot gets stirred, and everyone wants to throw out their opinion. I’m for it, but Griffin Jackson, a managing editor for the Calvin Chimes, is against it. Here’s my response to his editorial:

Relatedly, a football program would be something to get excited about. Sure, Calvin can boast some quality sports teams, some popular events and some storied traditions, but football might bring a new jolt. It could liven up the student body that, quite frankly (and, arguably, sadly), doesn’t care very much about Calvin sports. Calvin students generally don’t make up the ideal fan base. We’re not big into tailgating or cheering or, really, attending. Football could change that.

I think he’s off base here on the attendance issue, I think Calvin students do turn up for sporting events (I’m thinking men’s hoops), but he’s spot on with the participation aspect. The Calvin student’s haven’t been active enough at basketball games lately for my taste.

Also, taking a long view of a program’s potential, it’s fair to point out that ten years after the football program comes (if it comes), whatever drawbacks there are will become the norm, and therefore won’t be a big deal. As much as some decry bringing football to Calvin right now, in a decade, it’s unlikely that anyone will say, “Oh, this football program was a terrible idea. What were we thinking?” More likely, it will become a normal part of campus life and, ideally, a good part.
This is true. Adding football will mean a large culture shift for the Calvin community (we do love to talk about the Calvin community, don’t we?), but the growing pains will occur on the front end. Getting a handle on the finances, finding (or building) a stadium, hiring a coaching staff, building a roster, getting used to the fact that there are games, etc. But these are issues that will get worked out sooner rather than later, and Calvin football would be “life as we know it” well before even ten years are up.

Still, in light of these potential benefits, we cannot afford to overlook the drawbacks — and there are several.

I’ll start with the minor drawbacks.

First of all, and possibly presumptuously, we’re not likely to be good. At least at first, as is typically the way with new programs, we’ll field losing teams. It will take time to figure out how to win. This may not be a bad thing, but it ought to be taken into account because most students won’t be jumping with excitement over a losing team, nor will many prospective students be attracted by losing records.

I don’t really like the “I’m not playing if I can’t win” approach. The team would indeed be bad off the bat, but it shouldn’t take to much time to get up to snuff.

The roster would take some time to fill out. It would initially fill with a lot (a lot a lot) of underclassmen, and probably some upperclassmen that haven’t played since high school. Perhaps a few that hadn’t played at all. I wouldn’t necessarily expect any wins the first year, but after four or five years, there’s probably not any reason to expect that the team wouldn’t be as competitive as any other Calvin team. Calvin competes for MIAA championships year in and year out in many sports. I would think that the football program would be built and run with those same expectations.

Secondly, logistics. Football is expensive. Fields and stadiums and uniforms and coaches and time and energy and frustration. Some of that money may come from donors (which raises an entirely different issue about what we should be spending money on), but even so, can we afford to invest in this sort of program?

Money? Really? At Calvin? Have you seen the new athletic facilities? Rumor has it that there are donors out there willing to write a check expressly for helping to finance a football team. Sure, money is tight everywhere, and you can't just throw it around, but if football can be afforded at 238 other Division III schools, many (most) of which don’t have the fan support that Calvin traditionally boasts, I think we can afford it.

A third issue that, again, may be somewhat pessimistic, is the issue of fans. Traditionally, at least at Big Ten schools and in the movies, the bleachers are full of avid, loud, invested, merchandise-wearing, hot dog eating fans. Will Calvin be so fortunate? I don’t know. No one does. But, we need only to look at the bleachers at every other Calvin sporting event to get an idea. As much as I love — and I think many student love — the Calvin-Hope rivalry, we cannot fill the Van Noord Arena even for the biggest games of the year.

The listed attendance for the Calvin-Hope game was 4,680. I would be surprised if that isn’t the basketball seating capacity (no tickets were available at game time according to the online ticket service). I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the largest attendance recorded at any single D3 basketball game this year. The national championship game’s attendance was 2,838. The VNA doesn’t fill up much because it’s huge, not because people don’t come.

We have national champion-quality teams (i.e. volleyball, cross-country, etc), and still we struggle to fill seats. Calvin students, for better or worse (probably worse), simply don’t care very much about our sports. What reason do we have to think we’ll feel differently about football?

I don’t think volleyball and cross country are appropriate comparisons for football. Football is king in America, but you don't think fans will show up to Calvin football games because they don’t show up in droves to watch volleyball? No one shows up in droves to watch volleyball! Last September, 1,052 came to the VNA to watch the Calvin-Hope volleyball game. In October, 1,624 people showed up in Ann Arbor to watch a Michigan-Michigan State volleyball game. Sure, the UM attendance is probably more of a “normal” attendance while Calvin has a special draw for Hope, but the point remains that even the “big schools” don’t draw all that well for volleyball, at least, they don’t draw many more than Calvin occasionally can.

In Division-I, football and basketball are referred to as “revenue sports” because they have the ability to draw enough fans to turn a profit. They’re simply a different animal in terms of fan turnout.

And, even if, miraculously, football takes off and every game sells out, how will that affect the other athletic programs? Will it reduce already minimal crowd sizes at basketball games and tennis matches and rugby events? Will it steal fans? Perhaps not. But, it’s worth thinking about.

Again, Basketball crowds aren’t minimal. Calvin just finished third in Division III in men’s basketball attendance. Basketball is probably the only fair proxy to estimating football attendance, and Calvin does very well in that respect.

I think the folks that attend tennis and rugby are specialized fans. They’re parents and friends of the players, or they’re particularly interested in that particular sport. I don’t think Jerry Layperson wanders into those events as it is.

Football “culture,” at least in its ideal, involves rowdy, wildly-excited fans. This sort of thing naturally lends itself to a little bit of chaos, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It only becomes a bad thing when Campus Safety can’t handle the crowd control.

Earlier in this editorial, the Calvin fans weren’t lively enough, and they weren’t excited about their teams. Now adding football will cause the crowd to become so full of hooligans that campus safety can no longer control the situation. Really? I think you’re thinking of the wrong football. We already have the other kind.

But seriously, is a scenario in which crowd control is impossible even plausible at all? Come on now.

Additionally, it would be irresponsible of us to ignore the pretty solid connection between football and alcohol. It’s fair to say the connection exists between alcohol and most sports, but the emphasis on tailgating and post-game parties in football is unique.

Ever been to a Calvin hockey game? The Calvin students that want to drink don’t need football as an excuse to do so. It already happens without it. Doesn’t the college give its students “responsible freedom”? Football and tailgating wouldn’t force alcohol down the throat of an unwilling participant. It’s up to the students to be responsible about drinking.

Presently, I think Calvin is in a good place in the way that it prioritizes spiritual life and academics. These are the chief aims of this institution. Certainly, I would like it if more students cared about our athletic programs — and maybe football is a way to do that — but the gains are not worth the costs if we must sacrificially lower the standards of current Calvin culture or spiritual life or intellectual quality.

Why would football automatically lower the standards? Does Wheaton have that poor of a “spiritual life”? They have football. Does Harvard have low “intellectual quality”? They have football. Does basketball or swimming or softball “sacrificially lower” these standards? Why would we assume football would?

I really don’t think there are any issues that are un-tackleable here. If D3 football works in general, then there’s no reason it can’t work at Calvin. The questions is whether or not the administration wants it to. We shall see.

1 comment:

  1. I know its a little late to comment, but you're right on with your rebuttals to the chimes write-in. I am kind of sick of people always saying Calvin students don't show up to basketball games, when they fact do. There is a difference between participation and attendance. Calvin has one but not the other.