After the first touchdown of every home game, Nebraska's Memorial Stadium releases a stunning display into the air: Hundreds of red balloons drifting off into infinity.
Except there's that old adage: What goes up, must come down. And a new lawsuit from a Nebraska resident is emphasizing the latter part of that saying.
In Randall S. Krause's filing against the University of Nebraska on Tuesday, he argues that the balloons are a threat to wildlife and young children when they fall back to Earth as debris, and that the football program's tradition amounts to "the open dumping of solid waste."
Krause is asking the university to adopt a more environmentally friendly mindset and end the balloon tradition, which has divided the Cornhusker fan base. Some aren't sure the environmental concerns warrant such a drastic change. Others simply don't want to give up a longstanding tradition -- one attached to the greatest tradition of them all in Nebraska: Football.
There's room for debate on the environmental front, but it's hard to say the effects are negligible. The university isn't being ignorant when it comes to the balloon tradition. Nebraska now uses biodegradable balloons made of natural latex, and the strings are made of cotton. It's a vast upgrade over rubber balloons with plastic strings.
But waste is still waste, and there's something to be said for the risk of wild animals or children ingesting or becoming otherwise injured by the debris. It's admittedly a minor concern -- there aren't any reports of children being directly affected by balloon debris -- but it's something that shouldn't be ignored, either, particularly when thrust into the national spotlight.
For all the conversation surrounding the balloons, though, the tougher problem to resolve is what goes inside. Helium isn't just used to float balloons or turn voices comical: It has a wide range of applications, especially in the sciences. Researchers use helium all the time, particularly as a coolant, and some MRI machines can't function without helium.
And believe it or not, there's a helium shortage around the world right now -- a deficit so bad that, according to Wired, some scientific research is being put on hold due to helium's lack of availability. Naturally, this shortage has increased the price of helium. Nebraska's use of helium comes at a greater financial cost now, but it also represents a frivolous waste of a coveted asset that needs to be efficiently managed and allocated.
It's a tricky argument to make because the scale is admittedly small. Whether or not Nebraska releases helium balloons into the air will ultimately make a negligible difference in the planet's state of environmental affairs. Its proponents will say that the balloon tradition is, relatively speaking, harmless, and they won't be wrong for saying so.
That's why Nebraska must reform its ways, and end the football program's balloon tradition, on a matter of principle.
Surely there will be voices that conflate this balloon controversy with tree-hugging liberal agendas. And the other side of the argument might try to frame Nebraska as some conservative swamp forever opposed to progressive ideals.
In reality, both perspectives would be wrong. During the past few years, no state's population worked harder to stop the Keystone XL pipeline more than Nebraska's did. Farmers, activists and citizens from across the political spectrum came together and created a united front against the operation, which would have built a pipeline to transport oil south through the upper midwest and down into Texas -- but not without making some minor messes along the way.
Go to Nebraska and you'll find conservatives all over the state that passionately opposed the project and its potential environmental threats. They cheered when Obama rejected the Keystone XL proposal. They saw the threat the pipeline posed to the state's environments, and they stopped it. Nebraska doesn't have to look outside of itself for an example of progressive environmental values -- it can be its own example.
That environmental stand is a tradition I'm much more eager to see Nebraska embrace. In a state with so much farmland, where agriculture is so critical to the economy, it only makes sense to embrace the sort of values that protect and preserve the planet.
No one's saying that Nebraska's balloon tradition isn't fun or beautiful. But tradition can turn bad when it stands in the way of progress.
The waste is small, the effects are minimal, but the symbolism is large and meaningful. It's time for Nebraska -- the state and the university -- to embrace a better tradition.