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Sawhney: Red Zone cap sends wrong message

As a Stanford student and an avid follower of our athletic program, I have always been proud of the fact that the University makes it incredibly easy for students to attend all of its home sporting events for free, with the sole exception of men’s basketball. Even football, which has risen to the status of Pac-10 contender, is totally free to all students.

When I tell that little factoid to friends who attend other universities, most are shocked that such a prominent program would simply allow all students to enter. Many other colleges institute quotas or other restrictions that prevent students from watching their classmates on the field–at some schools, students have to win a lottery just for the right to buy their tickets. At some places, it can be even more extreme–for example, at Duke, students will camp outside of the ticket office the night before basketball tickets go on sale (this is not only considered acceptable, but is a rite of passage).

So, when the announcement emerged last week that Stanford will cap the number of students in the Red Zone for next weekend’s game against USC, I was both shocked and disgusted. The University’s line of thinking seemed to go somewhat like this: “Well, we’ve got a decent team now. Time to start screwing over the students!”

The system Stanford has set up will involve students “buying” tickets to the Red Zone for $0.00, which they will then need to get into Stanford Stadium on Oct. 9. After 4,500 of these tickets are distributed, the athletic department will shut down the site and prevent anyone else from getting a ticket.

Admittedly, Stanford isn’t making the students pay for their seats, which I suppose is still better than the systems that prevail at many other institutions. However, there is a reason that students have not had to pay up to this point: Stanford is by far the smallest institution in the Pac-10 Conference and one of the smaller BCS-conference schools in the country. If the athletic department were to charge for admission, many students would simply stay away. Stanford Stadium’s Red Zone is already the smallest fan section in the Pac-10; some schools fit more students in their sections than are enrolled at Stanford.

At this point, some might be quick to say that Stanford has had this system in place to control the number of students at the Big Game with the Red Zone loyalty points system. To be totally honest, I don’t really mind the system. Unlike the system for the USC game, which is merely first-come, first-serve, the points system rewards those who come to every game in the season with a ticket to the Big Game, giving students incentive to come to as many games as possible and ensuring that the student section is always full. Of course, for years like this one when the Big Game is in Berkeley, Stanford necessarily has to ration student tickets, and it makes sense to give them to those who attend all the games leading up to it.

The real reason for my outrage at this decision is not necessarily the cap in and of itself–there are physical limitations on the allotted stadium section (which hasn’t changed) and safety concerns. I am angry that this announcement comes swiftly on the heels of Stanford’s football program’s return to national relevance. While I started on the Farm last year, there are students here who endured a string of losing seasons, who were asked to wear the slogan “I believe in Stanford football” and who were given the promise that we would one day become a factor in the conference and in the country again.

That day has arrived, and yet those who believed in Stanford football are now being told that they’re not as important as the fair-weather fans who suddenly find our matchup against a sanctions-hit USC team a must-see, and who have the means to buy a ticket to the game.

College athletics is fundamentally about the students–both those who are playing in the games and those in the stands cheering them on. Stanford may be a small school, but its students are just as passionate and dedicated to its athletic teams as any other university in the country. Is this message–that its students are less important because, unlike fans, they’ve already forked over significant sums of cash–really what an academic institution like Stanford should be broadcasting?

More broadly, I’m afraid that this could be the first step on a slippery slope for the Stanford athletics program. Unlike many other schools, like USC, that focus heavily on football and men’s basketball, Stanford has a broad-based athletic program, with over 30 varsity teams. The University might quickly forget that all of its athletics programs exist (ideally, anyway) for the students, and start cutting programs or shifting more attention and revenue to the football team. Stanford’s rise to national prominence on the gridiron has been a wonderful thing for everyone here on the Farm, but if it comes at the price of alienating and shafting the students, I fear that we will have sacrificed more than we have gained.

Kabir Sawhney is protesting the changes by boycotting the games. Unfortunately, this may be counterintuitive. Let him know there’s hope at [email protected].

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Kabir Sawhney

Kabir Sawhney

Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.