College Football vs. Academics
Next fall, UTSA will spend millions to field a football team it hopes will someday compete with cross-state rivals like the University of Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. But the plan goes far beyond athletics. As the college makes a push to become one of the next tier-one research universities in Texas, campus leaders say the school’s academic and athletic goals are closely linked.
Students and administrators, led by UTSA President Ricardo Romo, hope the team will foster school pride and capture the attention of alumni, who they believe will be more likely to support university financially. They also hope a team will transform the university from a commuter school to one where students live and play. “The whole campus is kind of buzzing about it,” says Travis Goodrich, a UTSA sophomore. “We need school spirit. We don’t really have that right now.”
But there are skeptics. While many faculty have enthusiastically supported the creation of the football program, others have wondered whether the university has its priorities straight. Mansour El-Kikhia, president of UTSA’s faculty senate, says faculty support is mixed for the project. The major fear, he says, is that the team will distract from the university’s academic mission or divert dollars from the institutional budget. The university has pledged “that no funds will be taken away from the institution to finance this football team,” El-Kikhia says. “Of course, there’s always the fear that UTSA will become a diploma mill for athletes and so forth.”
Steven Kellman, a professor of English at UTSA, said he would rather have had the school’s most generous alumni contribute to academics, not a football team. He worries that if the team isn’t profitable quickly, the school will be footing the bill. A 2009 NCAA study found that only 18 athletic programs reported positive revenue for all five years surveyed. “I can’t imagine that a new program just getting off the ground would have positive revenue, even with outside donations,” Kellman says. “UTSA is a young institution that cannot count on a large corps of alumni, particularly wealthy alumni.”
Romo says the boosters who donate to football are not necessarily the same people who would donate to academic programs. But Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland and a contributor to the Sports Economicst blog, says the concern that football is siphoning off potential donations for academic purposes is a frequent source of conflict at schools with teams. And he says that even many of the most successful programs struggle to turn a profit. “In many institutions the athletic departments get subsidized by the rest of the university — not the other way around, as the idea of football as a profit center for the university suggests,” he says.
The last point is clever obfuscation: Football is certainly profitable at many, many schools. But that money’s typically funneled back into the overall athletic program where it has to fund a myriad of money-losing programs. Like, for example, all the women’s teams except perhaps basketball at two or three schools.
Otherwise, though, I’m sympathetic to the faculty position, having been at Troy State (now Troy) when it was making the move from Division I-AA to Division I-A. On paper, it was the dumbest possible idea. Alabama has 4.3 million people and already had two entrenched football powerhouses in Alabama and Auburn and a third school, UAB, making the move. And Troy had 5000ish students on campus and 20,000ish people in all of Pike County, yet I-A required guaranteeing something like 25,000 paid attendees at every home game.
And, yet, it seems by all accounts to have been a good move. The school’s profile has undeniably been raised, which makes it more likely that alumni will donate money for buildings, academic programs, and the like.
Like it or not — and I generally don’t — college sports is the main thing that makes alumni enthusiastic about their school.