I’m returning from Nebraska, where the state university’s Cornhusker football team is treated as something akin to religion. In Lincoln, Nebraska football is truly the only game in town, and the Cornhuskers football program has rewarded this devotion with a long record of success. The team has certainly brought championships, but not necessarily politics.
Until now. At another sold-out football game in Lincoln last Saturday, an ad for the TransCanada Keystone oil pipeline played on the stadium’s HuskerVision Jumbotron. The ad came at the end of a slickly produced highlights video lauding the Huskers 1978 Big 8 Championship squad. At the end, came the notice that the video was “brought to you by The Husker Pipeline.” Tens of thousands of fans proceeded to swallow their beer, put down their food and boo. It was actually more than booing. It was more like loudly seething. I don’t think the Oklahoma Sooners ever produced a reaction like this.
As the Lincoln Star Journal reported, “[when] the logo for the video’s sponsor appeared at the beginning and end, people in the stands began booing. ‘To me, that was just a real strong gut punch as a Nebraskan,’ [Cornhusker fan Allen] Schreiber said. To him and others who saw the video titled the ‘Husker Pipeline,’ it appeared to be an advertisement for sponsor TransCanada.”
The fans’ anger toward TransCanada is justified. This proposed 1,700-mile pipeline would connect the Canadian Tar Sands to US oil refineries, running right through Nebraska on its way to the Gulf Coast. This mass dredging of Tar Sands oil, the world’s dirtiest fuel, has been subject to international opposition. At the White House in August, there were more than 1,000 arrests over a two-week period as people laid their bodies down at President Obama’s doorstep in protest to the project.
Obama has hinted he will get on board with the pipeline, even though his own State Department has admitted that the process would release a catastrophic amount of greenhouse gases and would be like hitting the ozone layer with a wrecking ball. As environmentalist Bill McKibben said, if this pipeline is built, it is “essentially game over for the climate.”
In Nebraska, anger from every side of the political spectrum has built against this project poised to snake its way through the state. The reasons are very understandable. In the words of journalist Brian L. Horejsi, it will “rip a 50 to 150 foot physical and ecological trough through public and private property and run roughshod over the legal right of thousands of public and private land owners to object to forced entry of their property.” The cascade of Cornhusker boos were certainly enough for the University. On Wednesday the school announced that it was ending sponsorship ties with TransCanada and the stadium would no longer blare its slickly produced ads.
Nebraska’s athletic director, former legendary head coach and Republican Congressman Tom Osborne, said, “We have certain principles regarding advertising in the stadium such as no alcohol, tobacco or gambling advertisements. We also avoid ads of a political nature.… Over the last two or three months, the pipeline issue has been increasingly politicized. Our athletic events are intended to entertain and unify our fan base by providing an experience that is not divisive.”
The decision frankly evoked shocked cheers in the environmental community. I don’t think anyone expects college football fans to respond with critical rage to stadium advertising at any school, let alone the University of Nebraska. It would be like students at the University of Oregon booing the labor practices of Nike. (Nike is the great underwriter of University of Oregon sports.)
Heather Kangas, who was one of the thousand arrested at the White House, said to me, “The Cornhuskers letting go of their TransCanada sponsorship proves that Nebraskans are leaders in fighting the Keystone XL pipeline and that university students there are not just football fans but are active members of a community that will not allow themselves or their university to be won over by TransCanada’s expansive PR campaign. This decision should make it more difficult for Obama to approve this, because young people clearly are opposed to a dangerous pipeline carrying toxic tar sands through their state.”
So often, commercial interests hijack our treasured teams to brand their products. It’s estimated that TransCanada dropped $200,000 at the University of Nebraska to lubricate their oil pipeline’s arrival. But the Cornhuskers weren’t having it. It shows that as much as we might want to see the experience of being a fan as a cocoon, shielding us from the pressing issues around us, the reality is that the real world and the sports world are interwoven in ways that will continue to provoke resistance in the years to come.