Is Cal Football on its last down?

The Campus on a Hill

In 2009, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Cal Football enjoyed a buoyant season, by the standards of recent memory. The team posted an 8-5 record, including a victory in the Big Game over Stanford. When USC came to town, California Memorial Stadium overflowed, with more than 70,000 fans in attendance. Those were the days for scalpers.

If you were in attendance at the Cal Football game last Saturday against USC, you may have noticed a number of empty seats in Memorial Stadium. You might have even heard some students pointing toward the away section and muttering about the number of USC fans in attendance. Declining attendance at Cal football games has been a consistent feature of the past decade. In 2009, Cal was still in the top 30 most-attended Division I college football teams, with an average attendance of about 59,500. Last year, Cal Football was well outside the top 30, posting an average of 46,500 filled seats per game.

Football is becoming something of an endangered sport at Berkeley. I think my own reaction against the tradition-bound game reflects the broader challenges the sport faces in the Bay Area, where politics sometimes overshadow the game itself. The recent spread of silent protests during the national anthem reflects a Bay Area mindset that is willing to risk sport for something greater. It’s no surprise, then, that Bay Area athletes Colin Kaepernick and Stephen Curry are at the center of a recent clash with Trump that’s grabbing headlines.

I must first admit that I am a part of the problem when it comes to Cal football attendance. During my freshman year, I went to a grand total of two homes games. Sophomore year, I skipped all of them. Junior year, I wasn’t even in the country. And now that I’m a senior, and so close to the end of college, a nostalgia for my youth brings me to the games more than an interest in Cal Football itself.

In high school, I went to the football games regularly. Hell — for most of middle school and a short time freshman year of high school, I was on the football team. So, what happened? I suspect football got caught in the web of my suburban upbringing, which I intended to clear away when I started college. By diapers, many of America’s boys are placed in front of the television for Sunday’s games. Most of us don’t choose to watch football; it’s simply what we’re brought up in. Little surprise, then, that the sport became one of the first casualties of a desire to define my self apart from the circumstances of my youth. In short, the game had little appeal for a young person in the Bay Area looking to rebel a little against tradition.

The decline of football’s popularity at Berkeley is, however, more than an aggregate of personal stories like mine. After all, we’ve established that as late as 2009, Cal was crazy for America’s pastime. There is likely a combination of factors at work: a slumping football team, the recession, HD television, increasing evidence on the dangers of the game, reduced capacity at Memorial Stadium and, yes, Bay Area culture — or counterculture, more precisely.

Football hasn’t faced a great reception nationally, either. The game has been caught between opposing political poles. From the NFL owners that collectively gave millions to Trump’s inauguration fund, to the silent protests during the national anthem.

No area of the country was more likely to be at the center of this new trend than the Bay, where then-backup for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, began taking a knee during the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said last fall. Perhaps no place in America is more receptive to such a sentiment than the Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular. Echoes were heard across town in Oakland, when the Golden State Warriors all but refused an invitation to the White House.

Football, more than any other sport in recent decades, has stood for something as much political as athletic. Stuffed in each ball is a mixture of local pride, national tradition and a conservative hierarchy. The game has used cultural politics to drum up mass appeal for some time, from broadcasts on Thanksgiving Day to the Air Force flyover before the Super Bowl. In this light, it’s unsurprising that the activist-minded Bay Area has few qualms challenging the politics around America’s pastime.

Football no longer appears to be a main ingredient in our national glue. Back in 1920, Cal Football began a five-year period that resulted in four national championships to its name. This was only two years after the national anthem became a staple at major sporting events. A national sports culture, intertwined with patriotism, was growing up at a time when Cal Football was besting a nation’s football teams. Since then, the game’s position in our national culture today has shifted tremendously. The decline in Cal Football’s attendance offers a partial glimpse of this close to home.

Ismael Farooqui writes the Friday blog on campus culture in a time of institutional crisis. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishfarooqui.