Field of Science

Maryland puts football ahead of academics - again


It's holiday season, and here in the U.S. that means one thing: football!  Right?  I mean, what could be more important than football? 

At least that's what the president and regents of the University of Maryland seem to think.  This week, they announced that after 60 years, UMD is leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference, to join the Big Ten.  (Note to non-football fans: the Big Ten has 12 teams.  Yes, I know.)

The president of UMD, Wallace Loh, announced the deal just after the Board of Regents approved it a few days ago, in a secret meeting.  "Today is a watershed moment for the University of Maryland," he said.

Wallace Loh is an accomplished academic, but he is turning out to be a disaster for the University of Maryland.  His first action, just a month after joining the University in 2010, was to announce a wasteful $2 million buyout of the football coach, who had another year left in his contract. Eager football boosters couldn't wait to replace him, so Loh went along with that deal, spending over $2 million to bring in a new coach who, I should mention, has had two lousy seasons so far.  Not that it should matter.

Then, less than a year later, President Loh announced that he was eliminating 8 other sports teams to save money for football, basically doubling down on his big-time football bet.  Well, there goes any pretense that he's doing this for the student-athletes.

To see how deeply confused UMD's Loh is, consider what he said in his press release announcing the move to the Big Ten:
"We wanted to join this athletic conference because we also wanted to join its associated academic consortium. The extensive opportunities ... for collaborations with our peer AAU and flagship universities in education, research, and innovation will boost the University of Maryland's ascendancy in academic excellence."
Oh really?  Let's look at the evidence, shall we?  The ACC has 12 schools including UMD, and has just added 3 more.  Using the U.S. News rankings of national universities, we can calculate that the average ACC school is ranked 48th in the country.  The average Big Ten school is ranked 58th.  (UMD is tied for 58th nationally.)  So although the Big Ten isn't bad, a move to the Big Ten from the ACC is clearly a move down academically.

Dr. Loh is a smart man, and I doubt he truly believes that joining the Big Ten will help Maryland academically.  But he does claim it will help the athletes.  He claimed that:
 "We will have the capability to support better our student-athletes -- in the classroom and on the field -- and compete successfully at the highest levels."
Never mind that the Big Ten schools are, on average, much further away from Maryland than the ACC schools, which will require more travel from the athletes. But travel is educational, right?  

Obviously this is all about the money.  USA Today's headline got it just right: "Maryland leaves ACC for more money."

Here's a question for Dr. Loh: since Maryland will make more money in the Big Ten, will you pay your athletes higher salaries?  Oh right, these are "student-athletes": they mustn't get paid!  Never mind that their coaches make the highest salaries in the university. 

Why does no one seem surprised that a university president, a highly educated scholar with both a Ph.D. and a law degree, is spending so much time on football?  Why is a university spending any time at all running a big-time sports entertainment system?  As I wrote last year:
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.
It's not just UMD.  For instance, just last spring the University of Florida proposed to eliminate its Computer Science department to save $1.4 million, while simultaneously increasing its athletic budget by $2 million.  After my article about this plan went viral, UF's president reversed that decision.

Stated simply, football has corrupted America's universities.  Top administrators have completely lost sight of their academic mission, and instead seem to believe that their primary job is to provide sports entertainment for the TV-watching public.  There is only one way to fix this: get rid of football.

But wait!  Football fans don't have to lose their beloved teams.  I have a better proposal.  Each university can spin off its football program as a for-profit, separate enterprise.  The team can pay license fees for the use of the university's name and pay to rent the stadium.  Then it can pay its coaches whatever it wants; after all, they won't be university employees.  More important, these minor-league professional teams (which is what they already are) will have to pay their athletes.  We should get rid of the current system, where the athletes are basically indentured servants. (For more on this problem, see Taylor Branch's remarkable piece, "The Shame of College Sports", which sportswriter Frank DeFord called "the most important article ever written about college sports".)  

Let's remind university presidents, and boards of regents, and everyone else involved in running a university that their mission is to provide education, research, and training for their students and the world. They should get out of the business of providing television entertainment.  And they should most certainly put an end to the practice of profiting off the labor of unpaid student athletes while neglecting their education.

3 comments:

  1. Sadly, with the exception of the CalPolys and MITs whose academic reputations exist separate from athletics, the success and notoriety of a university's big sports teams affects student recruitment, the people who should pay attention to the academic reputation not the football win-loss record.

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    1. PhytoP: this argument is often used by football fans, but it's debatable whether the success of a sports team affects recruitment of good students - it may affect recruitment by getting more applications, but are they better ones? I would argue no: just look at the Ivy League, for example, or at my current institution, Johns Hopkins University. And I had some excellent graduate students at U. Maryland, none of whom came to the school because of football.

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  2. The funny thing is that Maryland's football team is terrible. It's one thing for the University of Florida to spend on its football team: Florida is a storied program with many national championships and a proud history. Maryland is a laughingstock for anyone who is not a Maryland fan.

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