Field of Science

Football has corrupted America's universities

(In which I take on the football-industrial complex again.)

Big-time college football is no longer a sport. It's a very expensive entertainment industry with commercial sponsors, big-money television contracts, and highly paid executives. Its proponents have corrupted the mission of almost every university with a large football program, especially those in the NCAA's top division. It's time to acknowledge that this large, expensive entertainment business should be expelled from campus.

No, I'm not talking about Penn State. (Not this week, that is. I wrote about Penn State's scandal in a New York Times forum last week.) This week we have another scandal, which illustrates all too well how football will crush any forces that might try to rein it in, including university presidents. Here's the scenario:
  1. Pay $2 million to buy out the old coach and hire a more exciting one, even though the team is having its best season in years.
  2. Hire that new coach for another $2 million, who has now produced a losing season (2 wins, 10 losses), leaving games with even lower attendance than last year.
  3. Because football is still losing money, get rid of 8 other varsity sports.
This is a bad joke, right? No! This is exactly what the University of Maryland just did. Last week, U. Maryland (where I was a professor until this past summer) announced it was eliminating 8 varsity sports teams to make up for the fact that football was losing too much money. I kid you not. Here's what they are cutting: men’s cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, women’s acrobatics and tumbling, women’s swimming and diving, and women’s water polo.

The president of U. Maryland, Wallace Loh, issued a report that he sent to all students and faculty, describing the tortured reasoning that led to this sorry state of affairs. In it, he illustrates how he and his administration have completely lost sight of their real mission. Poor Dr. Loh: he came into the job only a year ago, with good qualifications to run a major educational institution, but no qualifications to run a football program. After all, why should he?

It's not because football is good for the university, despite the claims of some fans. Just to check, I compared the rankings of the top 25 football teams to the academic rankings of their universities. This graph shows the result.

As you can see, there is no correlation at all - the football team's ranking gives you no indication of the overall academic quality of a school.

So why cut eight other teams when football is failing? Dr. Loh explains:
"In a time of constrained resources, we have to choose: should we have fewer programs so that they can be better supported and, hence, more likely to be successful at the highest level? Or, should we keep the large number of programs that are undersupported compared to their conference peers?"
There you have it. We can't keep all these programs around if they're not winning! "Successful at the highest level" - such broken logic, such nonsense from the president of a major university, is almost enough to make me cry. Obviously, Dr. Loh thinks that "successful" means we beat the other schools' teams. But his own report says that a university's core mission is "education, research, and the arts." Did he evaluate these sports teams based on how well the students are educated? No: what matters is whether a team wins.

And of course there's money: if the football team wins, then the university can make money from oh-so-lucrative television contracts! Dr. Loh acknowledges this:
"If we believe—as I do—that intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment, then we must come together to reform this financial model …. We have to reset the balance between academics and big-time athletics."
I'll say. But despite these nice-sounding phrases, Dr. Loh's "reform" consists of eliminating eight other varsity teams. Nothing about reigning in football's costs, and certainly nothing about making sure the players themselves get a good education and have a future after college. This is the essence of how big-time football has corrupted America's universities. We pay the players nothing, we give them a lousy education (many of them don't even graduate), and then the university spits them out and moves on.

I've heard the cries of protest from football supporters: football makes money! It subsidizes all the other sports! Oddly, even Dr. Loh makes this claim in his report, despite admitting that football at Maryland is losing millions of dollars per year. To this I have two responses:
  1. Fine, let's suppose that football makes money. Then it will do just fine as an independent business. Get it out of the universities, and let each team pay fees use of the university's name, the stadium, practice fields, and parking on game days. Then the football club can pay its coaches whatever it wants, and it can pay the athletes, who are disgracefully paid nothing right now. And the university will still have its team, but without the corrupting influence of money.
  2. So what if football does make money? Since when did universities run an entertainment business? Should they open casinos next?
So get football off our campuses. If athletes want to train for the NFL, let the NFL pay for a minor league, the way baseball does. Universities can have a team if they must, but make it independent, and let's stop the farce of having university presidents try to manage large, commercial sports programs. Let them get back to focusing on research and education, topics on which they actually have some expertise.

As for the athletes: let them play. They can play football if their studies leave them enough time. If they just want the exercise, they can go out for other sports that provide great physical training and far lower risks of injuries. They can try the track team, or maybe the swim team. Oh, wait….

[Note: for those who will criticize me as a football-hating weenie, I'll have to disappoint you. I grew up watching and loving college ball, before it become so commercialized. My father played varsity football all through college, and he taught me the game in our backyard.]

3 comments:

  1. You'll get little disagreement from me, though I love the game and played High School ball. I'd add, however, that the argument you put forth for football would apply similarly to basketball and, to a large degree, collegiate sports in general (including the 8 programs cancelled for football's sake).
    And, though I share your sentiments generally, you must consider the university presidents' obligation regarding the schools' overall revenue. By my observations university presidents are as much fund-raisers as anything else and for many schools a decent football/basketball team is an advertisement, both to alumni donors and to prospective students whose tuition and public stipends underwrite much of the university. I don't have statistics, but I'd offer the hypothesis that there is a positive correlation between freshman enrollment and football/basketball team performance.
    In other words, with regards to the President at UM, don't hate the player, hate the game.

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  2. A G R E E !!! And with the first comment as well.

    There is a whole universe of us out here (mostly female) who are drawn to the atmosphere of learning that the university provides, only to be nauseated and repelled by the competitive sports.

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  3. If CBS, ABC, NBC, and ESPN paid stupid money to televise your genome lectures, you would be all in. All that your uppity academic bloviating above proved is that UM administration can't get their ducks lined up and get a sports cash cow to produce milk. Think of all the money schools spend on advertising then think about having a program that pays for itself and then some while providing a 4 hour advertisement for the university every Saturday. Phrased differently -- the University would get paid millions each Saturday to wave its banner for 4 hours. We could get into the mathematics of the cost (not retail value) of providing an education to this small minority of kids responsible relative to the rest of the student body to create such value to the school, but I'm sure the words would be wasted on the ascot-wearing set.

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