Does UMD care more about football than climate change?

Protesters at Monday's climate protest in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Zachary Swanson.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

On Friday night, the University of Maryland will host its most anticipated football game in recent memory when the Terps play Penn State. In July, the university announced that non-lab classes after noon would not be held in person to prepare for the influx of tailgaters and general mayhem that accompanies college football.

This change in class schedules to accommodate a football game comes on the heels of a week of global climate action. Last Friday, more than a hundred students of this university skipped class and work to join what is likely the largest global climate protest in history.

And Monday, a group of Terps — including myself — were arrested during the #ShutDownDC action, which aimed to bring the nation’s capital to a standstill to shake people out of their comfort zones. Action like this is necessary because traditional politics will not match the speed we need to respond; the science demands radical disruption to business-as-usual.

One of the recurring songs young climate activists have adopted is the old labor song “Which Side Are You On?” It comes from the Harlan County War in Kentucky, where unionized coal miners fought the mine operators and their thugs in a bloody conflict that lasted through most of the 1930s. The song fits squarely within the language of the Green New Deal, hearkening back to the heyday of the labor movement with a twist of irony: we now fight together for a “just transition” off of coal for those same workers.

As we sang together Friday and Monday, I couldn’t help but think of my university. Which side is it on? Will it do everything within its power to create a planet that is livable for me, the people I love, my children who can only exist if the crisis is met with the speed and scale it requires? Or will the school be governed by narrow self-interest? Will the short-term profits promised by lucrative broadcasting contracts drive when the school is open and closed? Will it continue pouring millions of dollars into an ultimately socially unproductive profit scheme, driving unsustainable mass consumption?

This points to a larger phenomenon in our culture: a climate-timeline disconnect. For today’s student, retirement savings, home ownership and a stable career all seem out of reach in part because of the existential threat climate change poses.

The generational difference here is that institutions are operating under the assumption that the status quo will continue indefinitely and nothing will fundamentally alter athletics’ ability to make millions of dollars. These investments in athletics — the Big Ten and Cole Field House — do not occur in a vacuum. They must be weighed against alternatives, and thus become a political decision. What’s important, and what’s not? The university could do more to address the existential priority of climate action, but it continues to prioritize investments in athletics, making the school’s leadership complicit in selling my generation out for profit. I share 16-year-old Swedish climate leader Greta Thunberg’s indignation for this betrayal: how dare you.

Instead of developing unproductive long-term strategies to bolster athletics, the university leadership, especially its next president, must prioritize developing sustainability and resiliency on campus and in College Park, Prince George’s County and beyond. This means listening to the demands of the climate strikers: requiring sustainability education for incoming students, ending the use of natural gas and divesting the university’s financial holdings from fossil fuels. It also means considering alternative forms of local development that build sustainability, equity and vibrancy, something I’ve outlined before.

For those of us who joined the millions of striking students, axing in-person classes for the football game but not for the climate strike shows this betrayal most clearly. Pretending all of this can go on unimpeded is akin to climate denialism, and it risks the future of all the people the university claims to represent. The university administration, the athletics department, tailgaters and students should ask themselves: Which side are you on?

Michael Brennan is a public policy graduate student. He can be reached at mryanbrennan@gmail.com.

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