UMass Football: An Expensive Delusion

UMass gambles despite stacked odds against it. This article originally appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette October 18, 2011.

Western Massachusetts is about to place a wager with high potential to lose millions, bring an influx of unsavory characters, and leave social wreckage in its wake. No, I’m not talking about casino gambling; I mean the deluded belief that the University of Massachusetts can become a profitable Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) powerhouse. Recent shakeups in football conferences threaten to cancel or limit UMass’s entry into the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and confirm that the university is betting on desperation odds. It’s time to give up football fantasies and concentrate on things that matter more.

I came to the Valley twenty-five years ago to get a Ph.D. at UMass. I love UMass, stayed here to be close to it, donate to it, and often teach courses there. But I grew up in Pennsylvania, where Penn State was a focal point of Commonwealth pride and was/is well-funded by the legislature. I was shocked to see how little Boston cares about UMass. I have taught in buildings with plywood nailed to the first floor to prevent people from falling to the basement. Campus wags say that the school motto is “Deferred Maintenance” and that its mascot is a classroom rain bucket. I can take you to places where jerry rigged plastic sheets and tubing is all the stands between dry land and a new campus pond. I can enumerate departments that have been understaffed for decades.

It’s shameful how the Commonwealth ignores its flagship but—as the slogan goes—it is what it is. UMass athletics suffered an $850,000 cut to its $23 million budget just last year, the region is losing population, we’re likely to shed a Congressional district, and the UMass board has a single regional representative. Western Mass will lose clout in Boston, not acquire more. Need I remind everyone that big-time basketball was going to bring prominence to the university? That the Mullins Center—now hemorrhaging money and managed by an outside firm—was going to replenish university coffers? Did the Commonwealth help that program? Will it rescue UMass if the MAC decides it doesn’t want the Minutemen, or boots them two years hence for insufficient attendance? (It’s no slam-dunk that UMass will average 15,000 fans for two years. It barely averaged that in 2010, even with a big- attendance “home” game vs. New Hampshire in Foxborough. Think UMass will draw 32,000 for that big rivalry against Ball State?)

Football is a money drain, though you have to decode the university budget to see it. In 2010 UMass budgeted $4.3 million for football; it brought in $1.2 million, but the books were “balanced” because student activity fees subsidized football (and other revenue-losing sports). Expect fees to skyrocket if UMass joins the MAC and football costs swell to nearly $7 million. Expect also that any residual revenue will go to Eastern Massachusetts, not Amherst. There will never be a large stadium on the UMass campus; local infrastructure cannot sustain it. UMass students will pick up the tab for Boston-area entrepreneurs.

And here’s the clincher. Even if UMass managed to build a respectable program comparable to that of neighboring Connecticut, big-time college comes at a social cost comparable to that of casino gambling. The NCAA is a cartel that’s as self-interested as the American Gaming Association. Money is made, but seldom by the schools involved; the NCAA admits that just 22 FBS schools actually made money on football during 2009-10. Big-time gamblers love college football, payoffs abound, and athletes are used like poker chips. Don’t take my word for it; check out what recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic, and Forbes have to say about it.

UMass uses “benchmark” schools to measure its academic and student life standards. Among its peers are UConn, Michigan State, and the University of Maryland. They’re fine schools but, with all due respect, I’d much rather UMass used universities such as Brandeis, NYU, the University of Vermont, and the UCal system (sans Berkeley) as benchmarks. Each is a topnotch academic institution with healthy enrollment and no football team. I call upon new UMass President Robert Carnet to shut down the Amherst football/craps game before millions of dollars are lost and academic excellence joins building maintenance on the “deferred” list.


Visit from the Goon Squad Undeserving of a Pulitzer

Diverting, but nothing more.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-94835-9

There are certain awards--film’s Palme d’Or springs to mind--that have more to do with how much one has impressed peers than how good the product is. I’m beginning to think that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is one of them. I haven’t agreed with the committee’s choice since Richard Russo won in 2002 for Empire Falls, but the 2011 choice, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, leaves me especially perplexed. It is, at best, a middling effort that hardly deserves to join exalted ranks such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Confessions of Nat Turner. It’s not a bad book, just one I could see a group of aging committee members honoring in the mistaken belief that they are being “hip” and “relevant.” It must be “now,” right? There are PowerPoint slides in the book and some of the characters text and tweet. Wow!

Egan takes us inside the chaos of the 1970s, a time in which punk rock was in the process of transitioning from an expression of underclass anger into a commercial commodity. In fact, one of the book’s two main characters, Bennie Salazar, is helping make that happen. He’s a failed musician-turned-record executive seeking to bask in the star glow of his discoveries. The other central figure is the enigmatic Sasha, his kleptomaniac assistant, who is either a free spirit, a true punk bad girl, or just seriously screwed up. Their various friends, acquaintances, lovers, drug dealers, and hangers-on populate the rest of the book. Kudos to Egan for probing a topic few have previously explored: what happens to punk rockers when they hit middle age, parenthood, and artistic irrelevancy? Bennie’s case is dramatic; his very raison d’ĂȘtre is built around having his finger on the next pulse. What does one do when one’s own pulse weakens, both literally and aesthetically?

Egan moves back and forth in time in good postmodern style; that is, never sequentially and never in a cause-and-effect fashion. That structure has led some critics to cry foul over a Pulitzer for literature. They assert that the work is really a short story collection rather than a novel. I disagree; the stories are so interdependent that none could stand alone in a comprehensible way. My brief with the novel is that it isn’t (novel); that is, aside from the idea mentioned above, it’s not terribly original. Does anyone still feel that a story must be told chronologically? Not that many books and movies wouldn’t be all the better for doing so, including this one. The book’s structure seems contrived rather than unique or necessary, but this may be because Egan is not a great stylist. The book is diverting, but not one that will make you marvel over the elegance of its language, its evocative imagery, or its unforgettable characters. The latter, in fact, are so vacuous and shallow that days after you’ve read this book, you probably won’t remember any of them.

So why read it at all? I’d say for the same reason you read a fan magazine or a work of pulp fiction--it’s breezy, mildly entertaining, and easy on the brain. If that makes it sound like classic beach reading, that’s what I think it is. A Pulitzer Prize winner? Oh dear! I suspect that ten years from now this selection will be considered in the same what-were-they-thinking? category as awarding the 1976 Best Picture Oscar to Rocky. It might be a good idea to get some real readers on the Pulitzer committee; discussion groups formed around the book are far less effusive in their praise than critics. Many of the readers have the audacity to call this a rather ordinary book. The nerve!


Ian Green Autobiography for Friends and Foes Alike

Ian Green, Fuzz to Folk: Trax of My Life, (Edinburgh, Luath Press, 2011), 334 pp. ISBN 1-906817-69-3.

Scotland is a land of strong music, strong drink, and strong opinions. Readers of Fuzz to Folk will encounter all three. It is the autobiography of Ian Green, the founder and proprietor of Greentrax Records. Green inspires great loyalties but, by his own admission, is also viewed by some as a “grumpy old man.” (319) In his defense, he was grumpy before he was old! And for the same reasons he’s so beloved: Green has always been an implacable foe of pretense, incompetence, and dishonesty. Like all great ventures, Greentrax has deep roots. Green acquired some of his love of Scottish music from his father, who was a piper, but if it hadn’t been for the Korean War, he might have taken up his father’s other trade: gardening. Military service sharpened Green’s national identity, but it also led to a civilian job with the police force. In addition to rounding up miscreant, Green helped organize a police-sponsored folk club nicknamed “Fuzzfolk.” Through it he became friendly with performers such as The McCalmans, The Cotters, Jean Redpath, Dick Gaughan, Eric Bogle, Silly Wizard, Nic Jones, and Brian McNeill. Greentrax didn’t occur until after retirement from the police in 1985; in between lay activities such as editing Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet, involvement with the Edinburgh Folk Club, and running Discount Folk Records as a moonlighting job.

Those looking for revelations into the Scottish music scene will be disappointed. Music takes up less than a third of the book, Green is no gossip, and his attitude toward artistry has always been pursuing what he likes rather than analyzing or pigeonholing music. His assessment of performers seldom goes beyond adjectives such as “excellent,” “terrific,” and “distinguished.” The book’s most-revealing chapters are those that highlight Scottish life in the 1950s through the 1970s, a time in which Britain was still very much in the post-World War II doldrums, but opportunities existed for those with more moxie than credentials. Some of circumstances and terms Green discusses may be unfamiliar to North American audiences but they’re not his target audience. Number me among the Ian Green fan club brigade, but even if you conclude he is grumpy, thank your stars for the music you know because of him.