Public Comment

Commentary: Millions for Big Sports Could be Better Spent

By Ariel Parkinson
Tuesday January 30, 2007

Of all our hang-ups, American folly over spectator sport is one of the more pernicious. It is the lingua franca of social encounter, the club handshake. Along with the few who share the same celebrative awe and commingling techniques through opera, you have only to select some proper names from the rosters of football, past and present, basket or baseball—preferably accompanied by scores, injuries, and titles, to qualify for the brother-sisterhood of the “elect,” or at least “admitted.” 

One would expect the University of California to manifest another set of values, and to support those values in every way. The pleasures of imagination, of learning, of the mind. The University as purveyor of theater, visual art, music, research, public outreach. The highest and the fullest pleasure of art, thought, information, technique and learning, not accessible in any other form. 

If the University of California can raise, or “accept” more than $250 million for a bigger, better sports facility, what great stimulus those funds could provide the arts, laboratory science, economics, political science, sociology—cultural programs of every kind. Some version of most of these programs already exists, and every year, for decades, they are reduced in scale, scrabble along, or vanish. Every year more people become more dependent on Commercial Advertising for selection and presentation of music, poetry, dramatic art, and the history of their own and other times. For what they know, and accordingly, what they have come to want. 

This University, because it is both Public and First-Rate, can take the best cultural manifestations of our and any time, give them currency, and with the free and good will of its members, distribute them. 

Long ago, shocked by Sputnik, the federal government decided to fund high culture in publicly supported schools. Berkeley High chose to form a School of Performing Arts, complete with expert instruction in costume, scenic design and music, “grande musicque.” One enchanting modest product was Menotti’s madrigal opera “The Unicorn, The Gorgon, and the Manticore.” The ease, charm, the supple brilliance of the young participants, including choreographer and choir, their cultural literacy, explained why Izak Dinesen’s Sultan fired all his dancers on their 17th birthday. 

A similar program at UC resulted in a “right on” version of Handel’s “Semele,” where the chorus spent an entire semester working on the music before staging and direction of the principals began. The beautifully trained chorus, without intrusion, seemed to generate the piece. There had been a world-wide sweep for the counter-tenor. The other protagonists were from the area—at last given a chance to be first-rate. 

The same trigger—Sputnik—resulted in a posse of “swingers” from the English Department, youngish, august, immensely capable, working with students—I almost wrote “patients”—in Berkeley’s chronically ailing Middle Schools. There may have been a biologist or physicist or two as well. 

These activities could not be more important. Neither could the CHOICE of a stadium for heavily advertised and advertising strong men jumping around a playing field, with its celebration, in triplicate, of muscle, brutality, and beer, automobiles, and processed food. Fifty years ago a demented fellow-traveler of the John Birch Society, selected his target for the first fatality of the Third World War: The professor had complained publicly that the University gave more scholarships to football players than to women. He lost half his face in a shotgun blast. The student with him lost his life. 

What the society, the state, the householder spends money on is a declaration of both necessity and value. 

The girdle of hills, the bay, still open, stretching to the west; Strawberry Creek, Strawberry Canyon; the long irregular lawns and glades of the campus, twenty-three oak trees west of the stadium are also a declaration of value, of human life in a context, of allegiance to the earth. 


Ariel Parkinson is a Berkeley resident.