On Feb. 3, for the third time — and only the second as a Los Angeles team — the Rams will play in the Super Bowl.
I won’t be cheering.
It’s not that I’m a Patriots fan. I was raised in New York; rooting against teams from Boston is in my blood.
Nor am I a New Orleans fan, angry because of the iffy call that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl instead of the Saints. (On Sunday, with less than two minutes remaining in a tied championship game between the teams, officials failed to call pass interference against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, allowing the game to go into overtime and Los Angeles to win on a field goal.)
The thing is, I don’t care. Or rather, I do care, but in a different way — I’ve grown to actively dislike football and its costs.
First, the literal costs. The Rams are building a new stadium (to be shared with the Los Angeles Chargers) at Hollywood Park in Inglewood. It’s projected to open in 2020 and to cost as much as $3 billion. The construction is privately funded, but the city will reimburse developers for the cost of access roads and infrastructure. These and other breaks could eventually add up to $100 million.
That’s a lot of public money, based on a lot of hope. And it’s just the beginning. Inglewood anticipates an economic windfall. The Olympics will use the stadium, and a Super Bowl, a World Cup and a college football national championship have already been scheduled. The redevelopment of Hollywood Park — which will include retail and office space as well as an entertainment complex — could make Rams owner Stan Kroenke hundreds of millions more.
At the same time, questions remain about the long-term economic prospects of large stadium projects, especially in Southern California, where the Hollywood Park development will compete with established venues such as the Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium and Angels Stadium.
“You want to use these things as much as you can,” sports economist Victor Matheson told The Times in 2015. “But there's just not that many 60,000-plus person events.”
Matheson has a point. The Rams and Chargers together account for only 16 regular-season games a year. And the Rams’ attendance numbers since they’ve come back to Los Angeles suggest that the idea of an “economic windfall” for Inglewood might be more complicated than it looks.
In 2016, the Rams averaged more than 84,000 fans per home game — highest of any first-year NFL team in nearly a quarter of a century. In 2017, that declined to 63,392, two-thirds of the Coliseum’s capacity. This year, despite winning their first eight games (the team eventually went 13-3), the team drew 72,429 a game, 10th in the league, behind such smaller cities as Denver and, yes, New Orleans.
Partly this has to do with the Coliseum, where the team is currently playing — a stop-gap, short-term rental. Partly it has to do with the Rams’ peripatetic history. “It was like a divorce [when the team left Los Angeles], and then 20 years later somebody asking you to fall in love again,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Washington Post in October. “I think it takes a little time.”
The dynamic between teams and their cities, in other words, is complex. How do we have loyalty for a franchise that has not shown loyalty to us?
And yet, this is the nature of big-league athletics in the modern age, when everything goes to the highest bidder: both teams and their superstars. To suggest that the Rams returned to Los Angeles from St. Louis for any reason other than economics is to be naïve about pro sports and how they operate.
Then, there’s the matter of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma to the head — which continues to shadow the sport and its players. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found evidence of CTE in 110 of 111 player brains, although because the tests can only be performed posthumously, it is impossible to extrapolate the real incidence.
Last week, California Assembly member Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) introduced a bill to limit youth football players to two 60-minute full-contact practices a week. A 2014 law already puts similar limits (two 90-minute full-contact practices) on middle- and high-school athletes in the state. That’s a start, but lawmakers could go further. The more I learn about CTE, the more I I’d like to see tackle football banned altogether at California schools.
In the meantime, we dress up the Super Bowl as entertainment — discussing the commercials or who performed (and how) at the halftime show. But really, what we are doing is watching a gladiator game.
I’m not immune to the great skill and even the beauty of the game; I was a devoted fan for many years. But the truth is, I can no longer cheer.