Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Time for colleges to dump football?

With the big controversy over Jim Tressel and his performance at Ohio State University, and the behavior of his football players at the college, it’s time for colleges to consider what might be seen as unthinkable: Eliminating football.

There are plenty of other sports that can bring the name of a college forward. Granted, football is a marquee sport, like basketball, but when a team becomes a liability and starts to hurt a college’s reputation, something clearly has to be done.

In recent research, I found that the biggest reason colleges gave for eliminating football from their sports program was money. For example, Hofstra University on Long Island ended its Division II-A football program in the late 2000s for that reason. I’ve read of other colleges, also mostly in the low, non-scholarship divisions, that decided football was a non-starter.

It might seem I’m picking on football because I’m not suggesting that basketball be eliminated. There are plenty of dirty basketball programs, but the staggering size of the football program at many Division I colleges makes the other programs look like rounding errors on a balance sheet. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association both use the colleges as their “minor leagues,” though there is NFL-Europe and the NBA’s development league that are kind of minor leagues. Still, the major focus is on the college teams and they are the main pathways to the pros. The development leagues seem to be for injured and washed-up players whose best days – if they ever had best days – are behind them.

In baseball, players are signed out of college but often end up in a team’s farm system, not in the major leagues – unless the player has absolutely awesome talent.

Unless the NFL is ready to pony up cash to keep the colleges’ football programs going, I am sure that in the current economic climate, a lot of colleges are going to decide to end football.

I was somewhat present at the creation of Florida Atlantic University’s football program. Near the end of my time as a student there in the mid-1990s, there was much talk about the “need” for a program, and the old saw that “real colleges do football” was thrown around by the president of the college. I could point to plenty of “real” colleges that did not have football, but the president was insistent that football could do plenty for FAU.

The cost estimates were staggering, though, and naturally the local pro football team wasn’t about to pay more to help out. When FAU finally got a college football team, it was in Division III, with dreams of moving up, and in its first game, nearly half the team was ruled academically ineligible.

Anyone who criticized the college for deciding that it needed to be a “real” college and have a football team was deemed an obstructor of the holy goal. Then-president Anthony Catanese was determined to have a team, it was said, so he could then build a stadium and strong-arm donors in the luxury box as FAU played Notre Dame.

Well, right after FAU got the team, Catanese split for the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and his departure was marred by the infamous red Corvette controversy, in which an assistant in the college’s foundation managed to purchase a Corvette for him through donations to the foundation. It’s a long, boring story.

In any case, FAU had a football team and the head of the search committee for the head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, managed to find himself to be the coach. The leader of one of the dirtiest football programs ever, at the University of Miami, became the head of the newest program.

FAU is close to having its stadium and has had the usual array of issues with its program, though nothing on the level of Ohio State.

But as noted in a recent article in The New York Times, colleges and universities are adept at gaming the system and cheating. A piece on Title IX noted that in an effort to inflate the number of women athletes, some women are counted two or three times if they are on one team, and men who practice with the women’s teams are counted as women even though they don’t play.

The lesson for all of us is that if there is a way to cheat, American college programs and athletic staffers will find a way to cheat, even if they don’t get away with it and are severely punished for doing so.

Years ago, I read about one college whose leader finally had had enough. The teams weren’t competitive with other colleges and the pressure to win was enormous, so the president ended sports and used the money to create intramural sports at the college: men’s and women’s softball, soccer, flag football, etc. The result was that participation in sports went up, the pressure to spend more and more to win was eliminated and the college saved a lot of money – and its reputation.

This should happen at public colleges, and even in the K-12 system. It will save taxpayer money and provide sports experiences to a wider variety of students. Private leagues could be started for those who wish to play more competitively in football and basketball, and the professional sports teams could be persuaded or forced to fund them as their minor leagues.

The current system is clearly not working and easily corrupted. That Tressel continued for so long in his lying, deceitful and corrupt ways is a clear sign that college sports is irretrievably broken. If the rules cease to matter, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?


June 5, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My alma mater’s football frenzy

In the early 1990s, I was a student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Some wags dubbed it “Free And Unemployed” or “Find Another University,” and it was not hard to see why students of the so-called “traditional college age” found the place less than ideal.

Many of the students were commuters, like myself, who attended classes part time and then left for jobs and homes off campus. There was a very active Lifelong Learning Society for retired folks, who got to attend lectures and talks by professors seeking to enhance their pay. Also, the general atmosphere was less party, more work since a significant proportion of the student body was less focused on self-discovery and the freedom of those first years out of parental supervision than preparing for a new career.

But the biggest problem for traditional-age students was that there was no football team.

FAU did have a full array of sports you’d expect to find at a university – baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, tennis, swimming and track – but some people felt the lack of a football team was what stood in the way of being a “real college.”

Even more frustrating, the teams FAU had were not in the top divisions, though the baseball team was pretty good and the coach of the softball team was a former major league baseball player whose daughters attended the college.

But the belief then and now was that “real colleges do football,” as one college president once said. And without football, FAU was condemned to second-class status, some vocal people sincerely believed.

The opinions for and against played out in local newspapers in the mid-90s. One that sticks out in my mind was the argument that the lack of a football team at FAU was all that stood between Boca Raton being just a collection of neighborhoods and being a “community.”

“We’re not a community,” people would say, and then declare that football at FAU would bring people together and create this elusive sense of community.

I was not a fan of the idea of bringing football to FAU because it would be spectacularly expensive and then lead to a whole array of expenses for a stadium and other accoutrements. I wrote a column for the college newspaper, where I was a copy editor, detailing the progression. FAU would need a football team, then a stadium, then a winning football team. There would be academic compromises and all sorts of trouble, I wrote.

I left FAU in 1995 and embarked on my career after college, and withdrew from the debate, though I was soon back in it as a copy editor for the Boca Raton News, where I again commented on the push for FAU football. Nonetheless, the university decided to go for football, and when I briefly returned to the Boca Raton News in 2001 the team played its first game.

Today, FAU has its football team, but not a stadium. It has had to play elsewhere as, horror of horrors, there’s no dedicated football stadium on its main campus in Boca Raton. Plans for a new stadium are always in some stage of development, but money has been a problem of late.

A recent deal with a bank for naming rights fell apart, as the financial crisis is breaking a lot of well-laid plans and sports dreams.

I remember reading an article years ago about how FAU’s then-president, Anthony Catanese (repeatedly misidentified by numerous media outlets as Anthony Cantonese) wanted a football team and a stadium where he could entertain donors in a luxury box as FAU’s football team played Notre Dame or UM or UF or any other great name in college football. To me, it just seemed an absurd and circuitous process to get donations. In any case, some big donors reneged on their pledges after the dot-com and telecom busts.

Catanese left FAU soon after it completed a mansion for him to live in, and I won’t even mention the red Corvette affair.

As finances tighten for colleges across the U.S., it may be time to rethink the most expensive sports, like football, and consider what may be unthinkable: ending football due to the cost. I’ve heard of colleges that dropped the sport and bad things didn’t happen to them.

Colleges with a mission to educate and not try to beat Notre Dame should be the focus now.

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments