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On eve of Super Bowl, football caught between a rock and hard tackle

Critic's Notebook: With the violent sport being linked strongly to brain trauma, its place in culture is sure to change. And the stadium as monument will likely change as well.

February 02, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium.
UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium. (Jim Simmons, HNTB Architects )

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.

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