Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Colleges that drop football should be cheered, not jeered

When the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also known as UAB, announced it was going to drop football, it was as if the Marines had decided to stop training for amphibious invasions or the Air Force was dropping fighter plane training.

There’s a dangerous notion afoot in the realm of higher education that goes something like this: “Real universities do football.” It’s been around since the turn of the last century and it brings up the heroics of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, former President Ronald Reagan in the movie on Rockne, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper,” the culture of football in states like Texas and Florida, and the belief that football can redeem young men from the scourges of drugs, drink, poverty and premarital sex.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took readers to one of the worst parts of Florida, an economically deprived town of South Bay on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee, where high school football was the key – not to better education – but to escaping from the town to colleges where the educational expectations are minimal but the gridiron hopes are astronomical.

The message young men get is simple: Football pays. Learning doesn’t.

It’s easy for teenage boys to buy into this culture. Older men are out there pitching it every day and offering approval for those who worship at the altar of athletics. The one or two former players who actually make it into the National Football League are lionized as the examples of what can be achieved if one gets the breaks. And for good measure, there are those who reached the heights and fell back, tempted by the evils of the big city: drugs, booze, easy women, easy paychecks that vanish.

Or their body fails them. A turn the wrong way can turn an ankle into a mass of bone and gristle that never regains its former form. Knees break, brains get squished around and you see the result of the old joke of the baseball scout: “Want to sign for a bonus or a limp?”

I was of the most despised class of student at Florida Atlantic University in the early 1990s, the commuter student. Oddly, the professors and adjuncts didn’t imbibe the culture of denigrating the commuter student. There were many in the administration and the student body who viewed the older undergraduate as a kind of hit-and-run driver. We came to the college for venal purposes, just for our own selfish benefit, and left with education and a degree, but hadn’t really put our hearts into it.

One professor told me that the commuter students he knew made his work worthwhile. “You guys show up on time for class, turn in your assignments, sit in the front, participate and have life experience to bring to class,” a political science professor told me.

Sure, there were bright folks among the traditional-age students, but there were a lot of people who lived in the horrible dorms at FAU, joined every club and extra-curricular they could find and whined that they were bored.

“Where’s the football team?” students at FAU would sometimes ask, and they were stunned to learn that they had signed up for a Florida university that had committed the ultimate sacrilege: it did not have a football team.

Though FAU had a good complement of other sports in which it competed with other colleges, including baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more, the one that really counted was football. Some students left FAU, and an editorialist on the student newspaper declared that if you thought coming to the university was a mistake because they forgot to tell you about the lack of a football team, you probably were right.

One year, an April Fool’s Day issue of the University Press, the student newspaper I worked on, had a fake front page announcing that a football team was being started.

Florida Atlantic University was less like the University of Florida or Florida State University or Florida A&M, and more like the University of Central Florida or Florida International University or University of South Florida.

The student body was skewed older by people like me who were writing the checks for our tuition, living in our homes and ambitious to change our lives. We didn’t live on campus and didn’t have to cope with the dislocation of leaving our parents’ home because we had dealt with it years before.

Perhaps the traditional-age students of that time (the late 1980s, early 1990s) were frustrated by the lack of a unifying ideal like a football team. But even back then there were many colleges without football teams.

One thing that stands out is an AT&T commercial from the late 1980s that played to all the stereotypes of the young college freshman. The voiceover went like this: “AT&T understands the special relationship between fathers and daughters.” (It was a more innocent time. Today that has a mind-bending double meaning.)

It went along the lines of an 18-year-old girl heading off to college and dealing with the dislocation of being away for the first time. She repeatedly calls her father, often late at night, in tears over being lonely.

Then, one day, she attends a college football game and the team stages a stunning come-from-behind victory. She again calls her father late at night, in tears but in tears of joy, to announce, “Dad, we won! We won!”

The message is: college football is my new family structure.

Football and college have been associated, as I said, since the late 1800s.

Corruption in the college game has been endemic, and the movie “The Freshman” from 1925 and starring Harold Lloyd, was a comedy that, according to Wikipedia, told “the story of a college freshman trying to become popular by joining the school football team.”

One of the funniest quotes is an intertitle: “Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.”

For many people, especially parents struggling to pay for their children’s college, the thought of having to pay to have their progeny attend what is basically a minor league football team with a college attached adds insult to injury.

UAB noted in its press release that it was giving up football because it was “financially unsustainable.”

Here’s the full quote, from SI.com: The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB,” (President Ray L.) Watts said. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Far from being the source of financial largesse, the football program was sucking the university dry in a financial sense. According to an article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera:

“Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

‘Our athletic budget is $30 million,’ he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
‘We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,’ he said. Then he added, ‘This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.’

Not surprisingly, students, players and boosters were horrified that an economic decision was being made to drop football, but why is that so surprising? Other colleges have made the decision to leave the gridiron and have gone on to great success in an academic sense. In fact, some have reinvested the money in intramural sports, allowing more students to actually play sports than watch sports.

Sure, there is dislocation. Scholarship players dreaming of an NFL deal can go elsewhere and retain eligibility, but students claim that the heart and soul of the college is being cut out.

That’s nonsense. UAB didn’t even have a football stadium. It’s true that a stadium is a sunk cost that makes it harder to cancel the game, but other uses can be found for a facility that’s maybe used 12 times a year at most for its intended purpose.

Florida Atlantic University finally did get its football team. In late 2001, the team, attenuated by about half because of academic eligibility issues, played its first game.

The need to use Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and Dolphin Stadium in Miami limited attendance at first. The opening of a $70 million stadium, to be funded by private donors, student fees and naming rights, had to be delayed until 2011.

Florida Atlantic has won some games, but gets beaten badly by stronger opponents. When I was working for the Gainesville Sun, FAU was paid $750,000 to play the University of Florida in then-coach Will Muschamp’s coaching debut on Sept. 3, 2011. UF won easily, 41-3.

The battle over whether FAU should have a football team had gone on through the 1990s, and a rigged survey seemed to show that local businesses were in favor of it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it through higher taxes.

The argument at the time was that the Boca Raton area was not a community, and having FAU football would make the area a community.

It’s a common argument when a sport that is not present in an area is trying to establish itself against strong opposition. “We’re not a community” is a catch-phrase that you hear a lot when someone wants the government to front them the money for a stadium.

I always thought that FAU was a special place with a focus on academics and developing people in the community who would go on to great things, and that sports would be in the background. Watching it succumb to the football culture hurt. This college, opened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was to be the kind of place where learning and scholarship ruled.

It would stand apart from UF and FSU, but now it longs to be in that august company with football teams that mostly are paid to lose. It’s sad. Very sad.

Many colleges have made the calculation UAB made and turned in their helmets and shoulder pads. Sure, you take a big hit up front, but in the end UAB will find its way.

It saddens me that FAU will probably struggle along. Maybe, with enough time and effort, the team will become a winner, but the opportunity cost will be incalculable.

UAB made the right choice. Let’s hope more follow.

 

 

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December 17, 2014 - Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , ,

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