I’m never sure whether I’m starting out ahead or behind when I feel obliged to begin a column with a disclaimer. But that’s how I feel this week, so here goes.
As one who has dealt with Birmingham’s corporate community almost exclusively from an “outsider” perspective — whether as a writer, journalist, publisher, city employee, small business owner, political organizer or plain old citizen — my experience has been that, generally speaking, it is generous. What’s more, there have been times when the local business elite have come together around an opportunity or (more often) crisis, to provide guidance and counsel and financial resources and, in some historic instances, even leadership.
To avoid taking up the rest of my allotted space reciting history and compiling a list of names, I will add that I have great respect for the role that certain corporations — and, even more so, individual business and civic leaders, including succeeding generations of some families — have played, and continue to play, in moving Birmingham in a progressive direction. A prosperous and civically engaged corporate sector is one of the linchpins of any successful city, and to the extent that Birmingham has progressed over the years, the business community has, on balance, played a positive role in making that progress possible.
It’s not that Birmingham hasn’t had some highly progressive business leaders over the years, and doesn’t have some fine ones hard at work this very same day. We’ve just never had enough of them at any one time, or else not enough of them focused on anything that unfolds beyond the bounds of immediate opportunity or crisis.
History also shows that, too often, the economic giants of Birmingham have been willing to settle for good publicity, even at the expense of actual progress. To provide an admittedly extreme example, it’s worth remembering that the It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham “image” campaign was rolled out by our local Chamber of Commerce in 1961, the same year in which Bull Connor’s police allowed a segregationist mob 15 minutes to beat on Freedom Riders exiting their bus at the Trailways station downtown.
Let us (I hope) agree here that the presumptive salvation of UAB Football does not rise anywhere near that level of social import. Still, it was a crisis, and even if it was mostly self-inflicted by UAB, it created ill-will in the community, generated reams of negative regional and national publicity for the university — and, by extension, the city itself — and opened up uncomfortable questions about the administration of the college and the influence of the Tuscaloosa-dominated University of Alabama Board of Trustees.
Into the breach stepped a cadre of Birmingham’s top business leaders. As The Birmingham Business Journal reported last week, the financial commitments necessary to revive the football program came in a late-May meeting between embattled UAB president Ray Watts and what the BBJ story termed “a who’s who of Birmingham’s business elite.”
That it was. The group pledged a total of $17 million — $4 million payable immediately, and another $13 million in commitments to eliminate the current deficit in the university’s football budget — and Watts left a much happier man than when he arrived. Six days later, he announced the reinstatement of football.
At that press conference on June 1 was Hatton Smith, the CEO emeritus of Birmingham-based Royal Cup Coffee. Smith, who rightly enjoys a reputation as one of the most highly respected businessmen and civic leaders in Alabama, was one of the key architects of the plan to rescue the UAB program. Speaking after Watts’s announcement, he explained why he and his peers in the business sector had come together to address this particular issue.
“The corporate community recognized what a tremendous resource UAB is for our city,” Smith said. “We also recognized that a competitive athletic program means a lot to our city, and so we stepped up.”
So what’s wrong with that? you may be asking. UAB needs a football team. Birmingham deserves a football team. The business leaders stepped up. Everybody wins.
So shut up, you might add.
And maybe you’d be right, maybe I should shut up. Especially given some other things that Smith said at the press conference, including his call for “healing” between the leadership of the university and its most vocal critics, and for keeping UAB on the “forward trajectory” being generated by its academic programs.
It’s hard to argue with the basic nobility of that goal. But healing is a two-way street, and there is no shortage of critics who continue to insist that the dispute is about “more than football,” and for whom Watts’s restoration of the program has not satisfied their conviction that he must not be allowed to continue as UAB’s president — nor, for that matter, their insistence that the source of everyone’s pain is the overarching power of a paternalistic board of trustees that operates according to its own archaic dictates and whims.
Anyway, it’s been a mess, and it could be one for a while longer. Or not, if the ongoing efforts to raise additional financial support are successful, and if the accumulated community enthusiasm for the Blazers can be tended and nurtured until the rebuilding program plays its first official game in the late summer of 2016. And perhaps, as Smith suggested, the resolution of this crisis presents “a great opportunity for all of us, whatever your perspective has been over the last six months, to move ahead.”
And there it is. There is what bothers me about the response of Birmingham’s top business leaders to the “crisis” of UAB football. If this in fact was a crisis, it was a crisis of image, born of the desire to spare Birmingham the embarrassment of not having a major college football team, and to mitigate residual embarrassment over the handling of the team’s termination and return.
Which leads me to this question: Was saving UAB football the best bang for our civic buck? Is that what we’re going to be embarrassed over before God, our great nation, and the whole wide world?
Not a poverty rate that is north of 30 percent in the same city of Birmingham where the UAB campus sprawls? Not a public health landscape in which we have some of the highest rates in America for the incidence of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality and other indicators of the depths of our collective poverty — in the same city of Birmingham where the UAB campus sprawls, and to which people come from across the world for medical care and treatment?
Not an educational complex that, a decade-and-a-half into the 21st century, reflects the same economic, political and demographic divides that have rendered transformational progress in Birmingham and Alabama all but impossible? Not the absence of an accessible, reliable and fully-integrated transportation system, designed and operated to move people to jobs, to school, to health care, to shopping centers, to recreational and cultural opportunities?
Not a political atmosphere that is rigged to prevent systemic change?
The sad and frustrating part of this is, I’m not really criticizing anybody. Not in particular, anyway. Our community has no shortage of engaged and committed people, of all ages, races, backgrounds and economic circumstances. But I wonder if we’re not dooming ourselves to failure by shooting too low, by limiting our definition of what constitutes a crisis.
What if our leaders decided that the crisis is about people?