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Comment: Where have
you gone, Tom Hayden?

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My Twitter feed blew up that Tuesday night with word of the big protests at the University of Michigan. I had spent the prior days somewhat off the grid, so I didn’t know what had sparked this sudden onslaught of activism.

I had some hopeful guesses. The nation had just plunged again into an intractable, infinite war, and that’s usually good for some campus unrest. New data shows rape on the rise on college campuses, so that ought to hit close to home. Was it immigration? Police shootings of innocent, unarmed minorities? Sky-high tuition?

No, no, no, no and no.

Oh, the student body was incensed all right. “Growing unrest,” one national media outlet said.

They had been driven to the curb outside the home of U-M President Mark Schlissel because … they were mad at the football coach and the athletic director. Those bastards.

Indeed, 1,000 outraged kids picketed for the heads of AD Dave Brandon and head coach Brady Hoke. They even chanted “Fire Brandon” and “Tradition Not Money,” possibly the limpest, least creative protest slogans in the annals of public demonstrations.

The Wolverines, you see, bite this year. And that’s embarrassing. Also, Hoke left quarterback Shane Morris in the Sept. 27 game even though he was visibly woozy and would later be diagnosed with a concussion. Hijinks ensued where Hoke said Morris was fine and then Brandon contradicted him, thus proving Hoke to be clueless.

The actual issue – Hoke’s responsibility and failure to protect his charges – is a real thing. It wasn’t good. Everyone would apologize, steps taken.

But those picketers weren’t actually upset about the root issue here, the fact that playing collegiate football will raise your chances of lifelong brain injury and early death. That was true before L’Affair Morris, and it persists.

“Michigan has a special place in my heart,” protest organizer Craig Kaplan whined to ESPN. “The fact that it’s been mismanaged like this hurts me deeply as a student, as a fan, just as a person that cares about this university.”

Oh for God’s sake. It hurts him? Deeply? Does he personally know Morris or any other young man who is in physical danger each Saturday in service of his ability to bleed blue?

Kaplan, it goes without saying, is no Tom Hayden. A week before all this, Hayden was here to mark the donation of his papers to the U-M Special Collections Library. Those papers recall the 1960s and the role U-M activists played in launching the nation’s student anti-Vietnam protest movement. They remind us that Ann Arbor was once known for having its priorities in order, for yearning to make democracy better and the world more peaceful.

The Morris debacle was a handy excuse for students to grab some moral high ground and vent about the team’s on-field failures. Michigan Daily Managing Sports Editor Alejandro Zuniga said as much to NPR anchor Rachel Martin, who asked if this was the first time the issue of football concussions had “come up.”

“You know, in recent memory, yes,” said the journalist in the best position to cover or assign stories on the issue. “The fact that the football team is performing so poorly had a little bit to do with it as well.”

Not “a little bit.” That is all of it. Nobody would interrupt their frat initiation on behalf of poor Shane Morris if the team were good. Kaplan, it is safe to say, wouldn’t be in such agony.

The proof: Kaplan and company got over their outrage pretty fast! Was the well-being of their fellow students worth just one protest? Or was this really an extravagant stage of grief by Wolverine Nation as they mourn the misery of this already-over football season?

The author, Steve Friess, is a veteran freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor. He’s written for publications such as Time, The New York Times, Businessweek and Politico. He was a U-M Knight-Wallace fellow in the 2011-12 academic year.

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