For 55 years, Don Sonsalla and his wife, Verna, have watched hundreds of Minnesota Gophers football games, cheering for old Ski U Mah in the wind and rain and snow at Memorial Stadium during the glory days and -- after the Gophers abandoned the brickyard for the Metrodome -- enduring 25 years of endless mediocrity.
But they can't endure the unfairness and crass commercialism that are coming next. And they can't abide the thought that the swells in the padded seats will drink beer at the new TCF Bank Stadium while fans in the cheap seats are cut off from the taps when football moves back to campus next fall.
It's not about the beer. It's about the principle.
"It's just a matter of fairness," says Don, a retired educator who earned three degrees from his beloved university -- the last a doctorate in education psychology and administration -- and who worked 41 years in the St. Paul public schools. "If they don't want to sell beer, then they shouldn't sell it to anybody. If they ARE going to sell it, then they should sell it to anybody who is of age, and has the proper ID. Anything else is discrimination and part of an attempt to develop some kind of elitism. And I don't like it."
So "Doctor Don," who is 77 and lives in White Bear Lake, recently sent an e-mail to Bob Bruininks, the president of the university, and told him it's over. The Sonsallas will not be renewing their season tickets.
This is no small loss. When people who bleed maroon and gold and who are committed to the traditions of the U start to walk away, it is important to ask what the heck is going on.
On Friday, the Board of Regents will consider a plan to let the high-rollers imbibe at the new stadium while the peasants go thirsty. The proposal would allow beer and wine to be guzzled only if you pay a premium of $1,800 to $3,000 per seat or pony up for private suites that could cost up to $45,000 a year. Those suites ("get ready for a whole new world of luxury," promises the online stadium porn) will have private restrooms, concierge service, flat-screen TVs and beer. Presumably with a buxom Go Gophers server.
The U has pretended that it is a safety issue, that it just wants to keep the college kids away from the beer barrels, although that strategy never works after a hockey championship.
But it is not about safety. It is about sales. The U has sold its brand to a bank (which received $361 million in federal bailout money, by the way), has sold other bits of the new pigskin palace to Dairy Queen and other sponsors and needs to give big spenders something to medicate them when the Gophers fall on their faces. These are ludicrous obscenities in a state with Germanic roots.
Keeping suds from the masses while permitting the rulers to swill? If this were Bavaria, castles would be burning.
Beer has been sold to all comers of legal age at the Metrodome during Gophers games, and there is no evidence that it has perverted the morals of anyone other than the two randy Iowegians who celebrated Iowa's 55-0 victory last month with a two-minute drill in a restroom. What do you expect when they won't let you pull down the goal posts anymore?
The sensible thing here is to listen to Doctor Don.
Sonsalla grew up in Winona, a big Polish kid who played football at Cotter High and might have played in college, too, but for a grenade that filled him with shrapnel during an Easter Sunday battle in Korea at a place named Easter Egg Hill. It took him a year to recover, but since then, the only Gophers games he has missed have been so he can attend the annual reunion of his outfit, Baker Company, 15th Regiment, Third Infantry Division.
With that service and four distinguished decades as an educator -- including principal of St. Paul Central and three or four other schools -- I believe Doctor Don deserves to be listened to by the U regents.
"I love the university," he says. "I got a wonderful education there. But it seems like they're selling it off and letting the corporate contributors take over to make the big money they need for big time sports. Money talks. The new stadium will be a nice experience for people who have the money. But that's unfair to the other fans. It's discrimination.
"Treat everyone the same. Sell beer to everybody, or don't sell it to anybody. Otherwise, it's unfair, and I'm against it."
The doctor is right. You know it, I know it and the U knows it. The only question is whether the regents have the spine to stand up not just for its corporate sponsors, but for the Don Sonsallas of this state who kept the U alive long before any banker ordered a beer in a luxury suite.
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