Three mysterious men hauled a bizarre contraption onto the field at last Saturday’s home football game against Minnesota and asked the fans in attendance to make lots of noise. The contraption was a microphone of sorts, and only later did I discover why it was there: skyboxes. The $226 million enclosed-seating behemoths threatening to permanently deface the Big House will apparently help make the stadium louder. The skyboxes have seemed inevitable for a long time, but there is still hope to stop Athletic Director Bill Martin and the University’s plans: Get behind the veterans.

This week, the University received a serious warning from the U.S. Department of Education – it must make the Big House more accessible to people in wheelchairs or risk losing federal funding. This is ultimately related to the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and all that the group has done to publicize the University’s shirking of standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The MPVA’s credible lawsuit to block the stadium renovation plan will be heard in court, and it’s up to the rest of us to get the word out.

Before the 1956 football season, then-Athletic Director Fritz Crisler discovered some of the seats at the Big House were larger than the regulation width. He decided to shrink them all to 18 inches, adding 1,790 more seats in the process. In 1973, then-Athletic Director Don Canham removed the box seats from the first three rows to add 600 more seats. The Athletic Department’s own track record indicates that Michigan Stadium was never intended to have luxuries like skyboxes attached to it, and perhaps the Education Department’s ultimatum and the MPVA lawsuit will help keep it that way.

The best way for the lawsuit to stop the addition of skyboxes is contained in the legal brief filed by the MPVA. The ADA code states that any alteration to a structure is a renovation. At that point the law requires that the stadium (which has so far been exempt because it was built before the ADA was passed) must be made compliant. The current skybox plan that the University Board of Regents approved does not make for nearly enough handicap-accessible seats and leaves the University no legal grounding in its assertion that the project is ADA-compliant.

The Education Department cited the entrances and platforms at the stadium as also non-compliant, something that had not even been considered until now. Should the lawsuit succeed in court, in order for the renovation plan to adhere to the ADA, the University essentially must start over with the renovation plan. The way the current plan is designed does not fix the slopes at the entrances or make more room for disabled fans along the sides, and no indication has been made that the concession counters and bathrooms will be brought up to code, either.

Let’s face it, students, faculty and alumni won’t go as far as boycotting a football game to make a point. But we can all still play a role in getting the renovation changed. We are not powerless to call the University out on this and demand a new plan

Head coach Lloyd Carr must be more vocal on this very important matter surrounding the team’s stadium. Sure, the Athletic Department may frown on Carr speaking out against the renovation plan, but isn’t that what leadership is all about?

Alumni can help, too. Withholding donations to the Athletic Department until it decides to follow the law is a worthy option. Many alumni have expressed support for an alternate renovation plan presented by a group called Save the Big House. This is the opportunity to push that plan by withholding donations unless the Athletic Department accepts a more accommodating plan than its current one.

And finally there are the students. Some students are working on a Maize-Out for the Ohio State game on Nov. 17, complete with complimentary T-shirts, but a sponsor is needed to pay for them. I can’t think of a better advertising space than the backs of 110,000 fans who don’t want to see college football’s biggest house turned into an illegal and ugly one. The phrase “Don’t trash the Big House, Bill Martin” gets the message across.

The lawsuit by the MPVA has made the illegality of the University’s stadium renovation plan undeniable, and the group has given fans the opportunity to stop what we all thought was a foregone conclusion. When enough people see that the Athletic Department is in violation of the law, Martin will have no choice but to back down on the skyboxes.

Kevin Bunkley can be reached

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