By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
February 2, 2013
One afternoon in early January, I took a tour of the refurbished Memorial Stadium in Berkeley with a pair of architects from the firm HNTB. For me it was a visit brimming with nostalgia: I grew up about three miles north of the stadium, in the Berkeley hills, and spent dozens of Saturday afternoons in the late 1970s and '80s watching the Cal Bears play, and usually lose, to other teams in the Pacific 10 Conference.
Just as the Pac-10 is now the Pac-12, with the addition two years ago of the University of Colorado and the University of Utah, the stadium, originally built in 1923, has expanded.
Working with Studios Architecture and the Olin Partnership, HNTB added a hulking glass-and-steel structure atop the western edge of the stadium, holding suites and a new press box. The $470-million project also included a 142,000-square-foot training facility and a seismic retrofit for the stadium, which sits directly atop the Hayward Fault.
There's plenty to admire in the new complex, which opened in September. The training center is tucked into the hillside, cleverly disguising its bulk, and is topped by a wide new plaza at the foot of the stadium. In many ways the additions are a more assured version of the bold marriage of old and new that architects Wood + Zapata tried at Chicago's Soldier Field a decade ago.
Still, the debut of the updated Memorial Stadium has come at an awkward time — for Cal football and for American football in general. Coming into the 2012 season, the job of the Cal football coach, Jeff Tedford, who had long pushed for improvements to the school's football facilities, was already in jeopardy after a string of mediocre seasons. Tedford was fired just before Thanksgiving, after the team posted a record of 3-9.
In a larger sense, the expanded stadium opened just as the United States was launching a long-overdue national conversation about football and brain trauma. Thousands of former NFL players have sued the league, alleging it took steps to hide links between football and brain disease. As the country prepares to watch another Super Bowl on Sunday, an event that countless commentators have described over the years as an unofficial national holiday, football's reputation is in dramatic flux.
"I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football," President Obama told the New Republic last month.
It seems clear that the links between football and various kinds of brain impairment will grow only stronger and tougher to ignore over time -- and that before the decade is out football will enjoy a much different reputation and a less central place in the national culture than it does today.
What that shift might mean for architecture is a tricky question. Nobody is suggesting that football stadiums should be banned, or architects hounded into declaring that they'll never design one. But it would be equally misguided to say that architects should have no ethical qualms at all about this particular building type.
When they're licensed, architects pledge to design buildings that promote health, safety and welfare (of the people who use them, or of society at large). And as we are now coming to learn, football stadiums, when used as intended, provide a venue for a game that is likely ruining the brains of a significant number of players.
It would be almost impossible to overestimate the popularity of college and professional football in this country or how much revenue the sport produces each year. The single top-rated television program in 2012 was NBC's "Sunday Night Football," which drew an average of 21 million viewers each week from September through December.
The Super Bowl, on CBS, is expected to draw between 100 million and 120 million viewers, or one American in three. (That's nearly three times as many people as are expected to watch the Academy Awards on Feb. 24.) The network is charging advertisers as much as $4 million for each 30-second commercial.
At the end of 2011, the NFL extended its television deals with NBC, CBS and Fox through 2022; together, the agreements will bring the league roughly $3 billion per year over the next decade. The NFL also has a lucrative deal with ESPN and owns and operates its own NFL Network.
Those staggering revenue numbers have been accompanied in recent years by a steady stream of new research about football's effects on players' brains. In May, Junior Seau, an NFL star for 20 seasons, committed suicide at age 43 by shooting himself in the chest.
In January, the same week I visited Berkeley, Seau's family revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the chronic brain disease that is caused by repeated blows to the head and has afflicted a number of former NFL players. Two weeks later Seau's family announced it was suing the NFL, claiming the league concealed information about the links between head trauma and long-term brain function.
CTE was once considered a boxer's disease; often marked by depression, blurry vision and memory loss, it has also been called "dementia pugilistica." Though research may soon make a test for active or retired players possible, for now it can be confirmed only after a patient's death, by brain autopsy.
Seau's suicide was a disturbing echo of the death of Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears safety who killed himself in February 2011 at age 50. Like Seau, he shot himself in the chest rather than the head and left behind a note that read, in tidy capital letters, "Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.'s brain bank."
The overseers of college and pro football now find themselves in a tricky spot, changing the sport's rules to make it safer — and protect themselves legally — without robbing it of the qualities that allow it to play so well on television.
For some observers, the sheer popularity of football will inoculate it from declining interest. (How could a sport that makes so much money for so many people, they ask, ever fade away?) For others, the knowledge that the sport is almost perfectly designed to rattle the brains of its players has made it harder and harder to watch; for them, it is only a matter of time before the erosion of our collective enthusiasm for football, which is still fairly contained, puts its long-term viability in serious doubt.
Increasingly I find myself drawn to the second camp. As a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers — a franchise that will be moving into its own new stadium, in Santa Clara, next year — I'll root for them in the Super Bowl. But I see football far differently, and follow it with much less enthusiasm, than I used to. And I don't think tinkering with sport's rules will be enough to keep its popularity from slipping.
If, as Atlantic magazine writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently suggested, there are moral implications in simply watching football, thanks to the damage we now know it inflicts, the same could undoubtedly be said for designing and building the stadiums where the sport is played. This is particularly true when it comes to stadiums paid for by public institutions or put up on public land.
Memorial Stadium, after an upgrade that cost nearly half a billion dollars, is now one of the most prominent landmarks on the UC Berkeley campus, if not the most prominent. Or consider the proposed Farmers Field, a $1.2-billion pro football stadium that entertainment giant AEG and architects at Gensler hope to build on public land in downtown Los Angeles.
There are many ways to analyze the proposed stadium. I've been critical of its architecture while praising some of its urban-design qualities, particularly that it would squeeze fairly nimbly into a dense site and rely heavily on mass transit. Politicians have meanwhile debated its effect on traffic and the environment and its potential benefits for the local labor market.
What's been lacking is any discussion of how football's place in the culture is changing and what that change might mean for the viability of giant new football stadiums here and elsewhere. To be clear, I don't expect that firms like Gensler or HNTB will have to start turning down stadium commissions to avoid a stain on their reputations any time soon.
But architects can't pretend that the new information about football and brain injury won't drastically affect how the sport is understood, just as the public deserves the fullest possible conversation about the kinds of monuments Los Angeles sets about erecting. And Farmers Field, with 72,000 seats, occupying a downtown location visible from the 110 Freeway, would certainly be a monument.
And to what? To the most popular sport in America for several decades running? To a violent game whose effect on its players' long-term health is just beginning to be understood? Or maybe to both?
The week leading to the Super Bowl is typically a circus of publicity stunts and inane press coverage. But last week, in New Orleans, much of the conversation was dedicated to player safety, reflecting a marked shift in how football is viewed by the media and, by extension, the public.
On Monday, reporters asked a number of players what they made of Obama's recent comments about football. Though many criticized the president — reflecting widespread feeling among current players that concern for their safety is overblown — others conceded that they'd had similar thoughts.
"I am with Obama," said the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed, who has played 11 seasons in the NFL. "I have a son. I am not forcing football on my son. If he wants to play it — I can't make decisions for him. All I can do is say, 'Son, I played it so you don't have to.' "