Eastern Michigan Football An Unlikely Crossroads for Sports, Society

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Ypsilanti might be an ironic epicenter for football to be at the crossroads of college athletic economics and the increasingly contentious discussion of police brutality. After all, Eastern Michigan’s enjoyed a winning season just once in the last 28 years, and failed to win more than four games 26 times over the same span.

Hot-button topics of society, education and economics serve as the backdrop for one of the most surprising starts of the 2016 college football season. Eastern Michigan moved to 4-1 last week, beating defending MAC champion Bowling Green on the road, 28-25. The Eagles host one of the conference’s stalwart contenders Saturday, Toledo, in the program’s Homecoming game, a remarkably big game in the history of EMU football.

And yet, the first question head coach Chris Creighton fielded on his conference call Monday was about the possibility of protests at Rynearson Stadium, nicknamed “The Factory.”

As the protests of police shootings continue around college football and the NFL — even prompting a protest-of-protests at East Carolina — the most striking visual came from unlikely Ypsilanti.

CBS Sports Network broadcast the Eagles’ come-from-behind, 27-24 win over Wyoming on Sept. 23, a rare nationally televised stage for the program. A peaceful protest in the stands spilled onto The Factory’s gray turf as the clock reached zero, with students and football players intermingled in an unusual scene.

Brandon Folsom of the Detroit Free-Press reported on how the protest came together. Of the many football fields across America on which protests of some form have gone down, Eastern Michigan’s was especially fitting. Repeated incidents of racist graffiti have been reported on the EMU campus.

CBS Sports Network kept its broadcast live for the duration of the protest, a bold and commendable move by the station’s decision-makers — doubly so, as the cameras continued to roll after Eagle players returned to the field to lead fans in the alma mater, mixed in with the protesters.

No metric can really quantify feelings. From my own perspective, it feels like more social tension exists than at any time in my life. The populace at large feels angry. There’s reason for it.

Just 60 or so miles north of Ypsilanti, the people of Flint have had to bathe in, cook with and drink poisoned water. Politicians tried blocking aid as a way of further their own aspirations.

Manufacturing long functioned as the backbone of the Rust Belt. Eastern Michigan football honors the region’s economic and cultural identity with steel-plate pattern jerseys. The Factory’s meant as an homage to the industrial worker.

Decades of government and business intervention left these workers with fewer opportunities. The Upper Midwest is routinely promised the return of a thriving manufacturing sector, but with little delivery.

While Eastern Michigan vies for a bowl bid, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump vie for the White House. Clinton’s husband signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law in 1993; the Economic Policy Institute reports the loss of 700,000 manufacturing jobs, with Michigan ranking among the most-impacted states.

Trump promises the return of those jobs and more, yet profited from the economic ruin of others. Atlantic City may reside beyond the Rust Belt, but its decline resembles the depression that persists in America’s former industrial hub.

There’s anger, and it’s justifiable. For many, it can be explained through the famous phrasing of political strategist and longtime college football fan James Carville: It’s the economy, stupid.

Economics loom over much of the rancor in modern society. Awash in record revenue, college sports are not immune.

In fact, college sports function as a pretty damn revealing avatar for the economic strife felt in much of the nation. Those with means collect more, those without must get leaner in their budgeting.

Talk ahead of Eastern Michigan’s campaign focused less on the Eagles’ chances of contending in the Mid-American Conference, or making a bowl game for the first time since 1987.

Speculation ran rampant in the spring that the long-struggling program would investigate moving down from Div. I, to non-scholarship Div. III.

The report suggesting such a move was quickly shot down, but it underscores the problems many athletic departments outside the Power Five face — and even some within football’s exclusive club.

Generating revenue requires some creativity in an age of seemingly limitless entertainment options. At Eastern Michigan, administrators introduced a club seating section.

Creighton himself hit the EMU dorms ahead of the Wyoming game to remind students to come out to The Factory.

Nothing generates some interesting quite like good, old-fashioned winning, though. After years upon years of losing, producing some Ws is what’s changed the most thus far at Eastern Michigan.

Well…maybe not changed.

“I’d be careful with the semantics,” Creighton said on his conference call Monday. “Changing, not changed. We are absolutely a work-in-progress. There has been progress, and we’re excited about that…In the last two weeks, we’ve been down and had to come back to win. That’s absolutely part of the process, and we’re gaining confidence as a result.”

Confidence. That’s an emotion on a much different wavelength from fear or anger. Confidence is exactly what Ian Eriksen described of his game-winning touchdown run after the Eagles completed rally against Wyoming.

“I was confident when we got in that position, we’d get the three of four yards we needed for a first down, even the touchdown,” he said in the postgame press conference.

Eastern Michigan’s earned its confidence thus far. It will only swell with each win, in pursuit of that elusive milestone. The Eagles are unlikely candidates to unseat Toledo or Western Michigan atop the MAC West. They’ll be underdogs in the majority of remaining games, starting with Saturday’s Homecoming contest.

Las Vegas favors the visiting Rockets by 17 points. A fourth straight win doesn’t seem likely. But then, nothing about Eastern Michigan’s season has followed the likely formula, starting with the unlikely cultural crossroads at which the program resides.