Get football out of our universities

(In which I take on the football-industrial complex, and get myself in trouble)

The Super Bowl is over, finally. The college football* season is over too. Now we can be spared the breathless, hyperbolic stories about football for a few months, at least until next season. The culture of football in American universities is completely out of control. It is undermining our education system and hurting our competitiveness in technology, science, and engineering. If we keep it up, the U.S. will eventually be little more than the big, dumb jock on the world stage - good for entertainment on the weekend, but not taken seriously otherwise.

Too harsh? I don't think so. I think we need to eliminate football entirely from our universities if we want to maintain our pre-eminent position as the world's scientific and technological leader.

Why do we need to get football out of our universities? I've watched over the years as football has taken an ever-more prominent role in our high schools and colleges, as football coaches have been paid ever-higher salaries, and as football staffs and stadiums have been super-sized. All of this effort goes to the care and feeding of a very small number of (exclusively) male students, most of whom get a poor education and almost none of whom succeed as professional players. Our universities are providing a free training ground for the super-wealthy owners of professional football teams, while getting little in return.

This has got to stop. The core mission of our universities is to educate our students, not to entertain them with big-time sports events. Our political leaders, and all too often our university presidents, seem to have lost sight of this fact.

So I was very pleasantly surprised when President Obama, in his State of the Union speech on January 25, put in a plea for science over football:
"We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."
Wow, not bad! Of course, as a politician he has to support football, so he argues only that the science fair deserves equal footing with football. (Even that is pretty radical for a politician.) I'll go a big step further: the winner of the science fair deserves far more praise and celebration than any winner of any football game. If football disappeared, we could get our entertainment from another sport, as we do every year after the football season ends. But if we stop producing scientists, other countries will make the discoveries that solve the technological, medical, and engineering problems of the future, and that form the basis for great civilizations.

Now that I've gotten myself in trouble with football fans (and there are many of them), let me get myself in even more trouble, with an example from my own university.

At the University of Maryland last year, the football coach fell out of favor with the athletic director, who wanted to replace him. (This despite the fact that the coach was very successful, with an overall winning record.) The problem was, he had one more year to go in his contract, and the university would have to pay him a cool $2 million if they fired him. U. Maryland doesn't exactly have money to burn: for three years running, it has imposed furloughs on all employees and prohibited all raises, including cost-of-living increases. So you'd think that blowing $2 million to pay a coach to sit on the sidelines, and paying who-knows-how-much to hire a new coach, would be out of the question.

Nope. The brand-new President of the university, in office just one month, announced the hiring of a new coach, along with a $2 million payout to the old coach.

What a bad move. That $2 million should have been spent on, well, how about educating the students? (And don't get me started on football coaches' salaries - they often make 3-5 times more than their own presidents.)

Do we want our universities to be known for their football teams? Or do we want them to be known as educational powerhouses? Apparently, the U. Maryland administration is more interested in building a better football team. Not surprisingly, many of the professors disagree. I can only hope that the students would side with the professors, but I honestly don't know.

Yes, I know the arguments on the other side. "Football makes a profit," some claim. To that I would say, so what? Universities could make a profit running a casino too - should they do that? If football is so profitable, then spin off the teams as private corporations, and let them pay the university a licensing fee to use the university logo. But let's stop pretending they have anything to do with education.

Don't get me wrong. I love sports - I've played them all my life - and I think students should participate in them. It's healthy and fun, and it's part of the college experience. But universities don't need big-time, pseudo-professional athletic teams with outsized coaching staffs. Look at the Ivy League, which comprises 8 of the best universities in the country. They play sports against each other, they don't award athletic scholarships, and their academic programs are the envy of the rest of the world.

The football-industrial complex has too much power over our universities. Nothing else can explain how we spend so much money and time on football, which contributes almost nothing to students' education, while academic departments are cutting faculty and staff. The culture of football worship has gotten so out of control that I think the only solution is to get rid of it entirely.

I don't expect any university to take my advice. But I'll end with another excerpt from President Obama's State of the Union speech, which we should take as a warning:
"Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So, yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us. .... We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth."
President Obama is right: students do come from all over the world to study in our universities. But they don't come because of the football teams.

*Note to my friends in other countries: by "football" I mean American football, that game with the peculiar oblong-shaped ball - not the wonderful game of soccer, which almost all other countries call "football."

ADDENDUM: I've done two radio interviews about this blog post, which you can listen to at the following links: 670 The Score, a Chicago sports radio program, and 1560 The Game, a Houston sports radio show.


  1. Well, the geekiest universities like MIT and Caltech have never been much into sports. And while historically, places like Harvard and Yale were into football, the Ivies haven't been much into sports post WWII. But the big publics are into football for the simple reason that they don't serve an elite, but rather the public at large, and the public like it or not, likes sports. And while American football is pretty much limited to America, normal football (soccer) is obsessed about the world around -- including China.

  2. Isn't the real point of college football that it motivates donors to give big bucks to their alma mater?

  3. In addition to donors, sports teams that do well nationally attract students. Admissions departments see the fraction of admit offers accepted go up after a team does well at a big bowl game, or the basketball team does well in the march tournament.

  4. Anonymous: I've heard this argument before. Again, so what? I've seen no evidence that students attracted by football are good students - in fact, I'd wager that they are no different from average. And lots of other things about a university could attract more (and better) students, at a far lower cost than football.

  5. Totally theory. There's one point I keep coming back too. I agree that football is totally out of control and may be hurting the academic side of a university for the reasons you mentioned. But not every university is UMD. There are plenty of schools, I'd venture to say the majority, that don't field a division 1 football team and have great academic reputations. Can't a student just chose to go to one of those schools (or faculty chose to teach at another school)? It sucks that some of the better academic institutions (like UMD) are perceived to be going down the drain because of football, but they're making their own bed.

  6. In Obama’s State of the Union, he said: “let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation”.

    The best and brightest people in the world want to come to the United States to study and many are not allowed to stay here after they get advanced degrees in areas where America is lacking in qualified candidates. This part of the immigration issue gets little attention despite being pressed by the likes of Google CEO, Eric Schmidt and President Obama.

  7. Rosie: "The perception [that college sports motivate donors to give big bucks to their alma mater] persists even though numerous studies over the years have challenged the link between athletic success and giving to a college's general fund (stronger correlations have sometimes been found to giving to sports programs themselves)" ... see: When Athletics May Influence Alumni Giving

  8. I've been saying the same thing for years, but I don't really think things will change. There is just too much money involved with college sports. I find it rather embarrassing that a college/university would be proud of its status as a football powerhouse, rather than an academic powerhouse. That is the culture that is being fostered in this country. It's sad that more people know Lebron James than someone like Robert Oppenheimer or Neil Armstrong.

  9. "Nope. The brand-new President of the university, in office just one month, announced the hiring of a new coach, along with a $2 million payout to the old coach.

    What a bad move. That $2 million should have been spent on, well, how about educating the students? (And don't get me started on football coaches' salaries - they often make 3-5 times more than their own presidents.)"

    Or spend it on what they consumers want it spent on, or you won't see that money, again.

    But how about providing some evidence that the rise of football is the reason for a decline in academia, instead of a rant from a soccer fan. Did China and India have to abolish any particular sport to accomplish their math and science goals? How is the University of Texas doing, academically? Is that not evidence that you can have an "oversized"(what would the correct size be?) football program and also be competitive in football?

    Salzberg is guilty of the classic zero sum argument, in which one sees the success of A as taking away and equal amount from B. He provided no evidence of that actually happening in his article above.

  10. Ken: there's plenty of evidence, but I already cited one very big example: the Ivy League. The Ivy League consists of 8 universities, widely agreed to be the best (or among the best) in the country, and none of them invest heavily in football. In fact, they don't give football scholarships. Most people don't know that the Ivy League was formed as an athletic league: they agreed to compete against one another, and to follow rules that prevented any of them from giving out athletic scholarships, which in turn meant that athletic programs wouldn't become the obsession they are at other universities. These universities have thrived and continue to be the best we have.

  11. You want football out of college? umm....who's going to fund the college campuses without it?


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