What the Superbowl taught us: Why we shouldn’t (and should) allocate funds to athletics

Ian Erickson/Staff

I am a born and bred Charlottean — being a Panthers fan only comes with the territory. For my UC Berkeley comrades who didn’t know me before my westward journey, learning that I am an avid follower of an organization encouraging blind loyalty and masculine glory probably came as a bit of a surprise. Nevertheless, I was pulling my hair out at every fumble, every sack and every pick six that led to the heartbreaking loss of my hometown team in Super Bowl 50.

But while I — as well as more than 100 million people nationwide — wallowed and waited in the absurdly long leadup to the game, tensions were rising around “Super Bowl City” in San Francisco. The day before the big game, Vice ran an article titled “Why San Franciscans Are So Angry at the Super Bowl.” The article explored issues of gentrification, homelessness, astronomical rent hikes, police violence, tech takeover, corporate privilege and misappropriation of public funds — all things that have been at worst ignored and at best nominally recognized by the city in the midst of planning for the Super Bowl. Santa Clara, where the game was actually held, is receiving compensation for municipal spending. San Francisco — which primed the pregame (including the displacement of homeless groups in desirable areas), absorbed the after-party, assumed responsibility for the public nuisance and cleaned up after belligerent attendees of an event that took place in the next town over — paid out of pocket. NBC Bay Area estimates this expenditure on the pregame at about $4 million.

This is not to say that costs won’t be covered (indirectly) through surplus revenue generated from bloated bar tabs, unlimited Uber rides and replete rooms, but it is important to ask: Who, or rather what, was silenced while our eyes were locked on the game?

A weeklong intensive Vice Sports report titled “The Imperfect Host” tells a symbolic tale of two cities: a glamorous and corporate-sponsored Super Bowl City, which overshadowed the scattered and borderless tent city of the homeless. It investigates attempts to rhetorically and literally gloss over glaring inequality and excise undesirable elements from urban spaces. The reality of daily life in the darker parts of our shining metropolis inspired hundreds to march on ‘Super Bowl City’ and pitch tents in an effort to voice a desire for change and accountability.

Indiscriminate athletic spending and the prioritization of urban beauty in order to garner global prestige is hardly a phenomenon specific to the United States. In five years leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, police and military forces systematically seized and cleared slums throughout the country in a campaign to “purify” and “pacify” the host cities. Similar purges wracked Sochi in the 2014 Olympics, New Delhi in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, South Africa in the 2010 World Cup and Beijing in the 2008 Olympics. Yet, we in the West separate ourselves from these suppressive agendas. While the implications of this Super Bowl are arguably less heinous than the walling-off of entire neighborhoods in Beijing, our hands are not exactly clean.

Who, or rather what, was silenced while our eyes were locked on the game?

The Bay Area is a living model of gentrification inspired by a capital-centric culture. When rents spike in San Francisco and people are pushed out both directly through forced eviction and indirectly through economic disparity, the East Bay absorbs the fallout. But nothing gold can stay: rents rise in Oakland, Berkeley and beyond. But this isn’t a study of the Bay Area housing crisis; it is an inquiry into the mysterious all-the-time availability of funds for public spectacles such as “Super Bowl City,” while programs targeting equality and redistribution are as marginalized as the communities they seek to uplift.


As a member of the Pac-12, UC Berkeley is no stranger to big-budget athletics. According to a joint report in 2013 between an investigative unit at UC Berkeley and writers for NBC titled “The True Cost of Big Time College Sports at Cal,” the budget for Cal athletics has significantly increased over the last several years despite significant spending cuts across the board from the state. In light of reports released last week estimating UC Berkeley’s mushrooming debt at about $150 million, El Nino may not be the only storm clouds we see on the horizon this winter as the skies darken in anticipation of further spending cuts.

A majority of the athletic budget is covered by revenue from events, donations, and commercial contracts, but the university (and students, through facility fees) subsidizes the remainder. While the proportion of this aid has diminished over the last few years, it still amounts to a few million dollars of campus resources. Adhering with the reputation of our radical, rock-the-boat tendency and general outrage (as noted above) at the use of public money for sports and auxiliary industries, this spending has been met with resistance from faculty and community members. These opponents contest that in light of financial shortfalls, the university’s mission of providing world-class public education is incompatible with the provision of a massive sports program.

It is also unclear whether athletics constitutes a portion of university spending large enough to significantly offset the deficit. For this reason and many others, the maintenance of a Division I status has a strong support base with advocates who argue for the benefits, both financial and otherwise, that a strong athletic program brings. In terms of overall university prestige and visibility, they claim that big athletics is another brick in the wall of UC Berkeley’s status as “The Best Public University in the World.” Student engagement, scholarship provision for athletes, maintenance of alumni networks, stimulation of local businesses, and job creation are among the many benefits that the athletic department brings to our school. It comes down to a question of priorities, a question that begs further investigation and open communications. Despite efforts to contact several members of the athletics staff, I have not been able to set up any interviews to discuss funding, and no one has offered to comment on questions raised here.

Student engagement, scholarship provision for athletes, maintenance of alumni networks, stimulation of local businesses, and job creation are among the many benefits that the athletic department brings to our school.

I have a vivid memory of reading my first ever UC Berkeley syllabus in fall 2013 for Michael Watts’ “Introduction to Development.” In the section where his contact information was listed, the final line read, “I no longer have an office phone due to budget cuts.” As a private school attendee for my entire academic life prior to UC Berkeley, this struck me. It has stayed with me, and it reemerges through my exposure to financial movements, such as the GSIs’ and university workers’ pay strikes of that same semester and the Fight the Hike/Occupy Wheeler movement of last year. Yet, at the same time that my freshman passions were stirred by these perspective-shifting encounters, I was also an active patron of Cal Athletics. I can still feel the scorching sun over the student section after a few too many water-beers. I remember snippets and snatches of the cheers and chants that would ricochet around the stone stadium. I resonate with the feeling of belonging that I experienced as a Southerner far from home — an alumnus of a high school where football came second only to prayer.

Where do we draw the line in the turf for the use of university (or public in a broader sense) revenue to subsidize big screen sports? Does that line even exist? Can we calculate the unquantifiable benefits generated from our Pac-12 status? Are the money and benefits actually reaching those who would not otherwise have access to this institution? Could this money be better allocated to academic scholarship? Will these decisions ever get easier as stocks — both literal and metaphorical­ — continue to run dry?

As a hesitant economist, I don’t assume to have the answers to any of these questions. I do, however, believe they are important ones to ask and crucial if we are to weather the storms of future spending cuts and internal skirmishes over resource allocation. To fuel my own academic masturbation, scarcity is both a physical and a constructed reality. We are faced with tangible, measurable constraints on our resources that are continuously augmented by our policy directives and our priorities. We have the agency to choose where these priorities lie and come together to support the diverse interests of our community. While it is argued that events such as the Super Bowl are “for the people,” we must ask: Who are “the people?” Redefining inclusiveness and lifting the velvet curtain off of the corroded infrastructure of our modern metropolis, as the protests sought to do, helps to imagine community-based strategies to combat rising inequality, displacement and dispossession. In a basket of Band-Aids, we need antibiotics.

Contact Conner Smith at [email protected]