By Brett Hoover
When former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison this week, it was another blow to Bristol, Conn., a city of about 60,000 which sits about 20 miles west of the state capitol, Hartford.
Hernandez is not just a son of Bristol, he was both a prep star and honor student at Bristol Central High. Two years ago — just three weeks before the murder of which he would be convicted — he was given a Pop Warner Inspiration to Youth Award.
“He was Bristol’s golden boy. People had a lot of hopes and dreams on his shoulders,” J.R. Rusgrove, owner of the city’s Parkside Cafe, told Don Stacom of the Hartford Courant. “Some people are shocked. I think everybody is really sad.”
While the outside world has come to know Bristol as the home of ESPN, the self-appointed “World Wide Leader in Sports,” insiders must recognize that — despite the massive infusion of tax dollars from the network and its countless spinoffs — the former factory town is struggling with little sign of a turnaround.
While its minority and low-income student populations nearly tripled in the last 15 to 20 years, the school district’s workforce lacks the diversity of its learners. And in just the last seven years the district has experienced a double-digit percentage decrease in enrollment.
What does that mean for the next decade? Researchers from the University of Connecticut and officials from the school district disagree. Both recognize that enrollment will continue a downward trend, but the debate is simply its rapidity.
While ESPN’s sprawling campus with more than 4,000 employees has been a tremendous asset, not all of the attention has been positive. Some of ESPN’s best-known figures have been sarcastically critical of the city and the perception is that a significant number of employees swing through the empire’s gates to and from work, never stopping to support Bristol.
This is not to say that the corporate executives have not helped city officials improve the community. Not long ago, ESPN donated $1 million to the Bristol Boys & Girls Club and many employees do volunteer their time. Yet the question remains — is it enough?
Is it ESPN’s responsibility to make a real commitment to Bristol in the form of a Promise program which makes college affordable for those who achieve? Probably not. Would it be wise for ESPN to make that commitment to the place where it has continuously constructed its campus for more than three decades now? Surely.
Within the last year Forbes reported that ESPN’s value had eclipsed $50 billion. Located within a school district of fewer than 8,000 students, ESPN could easily fund a $1 million-a-year program similar to the one in nearby New Haven and another starting in Hartford in 2016.
After all, a $1 million gift from ESPN is equivalent to a man with $500 sparing a penny.
ADDENDUM (10:50 AM): A December 2013 New York Times story about ESPN indicated that the company has received more than a quarter-billion dollars in state tax breaks and credits little more than a decade, including “savings of about $15 million a year since the network successfully lobbied the state for a tax code change in 2000.”
Brett Hoover — who formerly served as the Associate Director of the Ivy League — convinced ESPN to bring its live College GameDay Show to an Ivy League venue, Harvard at Penn, in 2002. That show — which drew a record audience — opened the GameDay tour to the full spectrum of college football.