Should Universities End Football?

Boston University and Northeastern have found that there is life after football. Shouldn't most schools follow their lead?

Inside Higher Ed passes along a Boston Globe report that eliminating the football program can actually benefit a university, not only saving money but actually yielding an increase in enrollments and alumni support.

For Northeastern, life after football is good. Very good.

There has been little or no blowback from alumni or students, as money once spent on football now serves other campus goals. In fact, the number of donors is up (from 19,559 to 21,797) as is the number of applicants (37,693 for 2,800 spots), and the stature of the university continues to rise.

No one is claiming these advances are happening because football is gone. But what is drawing the atten tion of other institutions across the country is how painless it proved to do what once seemed out of the question — eliminating the one sport that, for many colleges and universities, is considered key to catalyzing school spirit, motivating donors, and building a winning identity.

“Because we had clarity of vision, we dropped football,” said Northeastern president Joseph Aoun. “The community has ultimately been better off because we are seeking the best in terms of the student experience. And with respect to football, it was not optimal.”

Indeed, college’s big money sport is increasingly viewed and valued differently than in the past, especially at schools like Northeastern, where football was never played at the highest level and where the school’s academic identity wasn’t bound up in gridiron success. Dropping football, at such schools, is now viewed as an alternative thoughtful administrators need to take a long, hard look at.

[…]

Northeastern’s decision came 12 years after Boston University dropped its football program, and showed how a school can build its name and excel in other sports in part by stepping out of the costly college football arms race.

[…]

After dropping football, BU poured $285 million into athletic facilities over 12 years, building a new sports and entertainment complex, a new boathouse, a track and tennis facility and a fitness and recreation center. Alumni giving earmarked for intercollegiate sports has gone up, not down. And student interest has soared, with intramural sports participation up more than 55 percent.

[…]

Since BU made its hard choice, in 1997, 28 schools have dared to discontinue football.

To be sure, quite a few schools have also added programs and many more have made the investment to move from lower classifications to the FBS (formerly Division I-A) level.   But the incentives are almost all in the other direction.

For places like the University of Alabama, where I got my doctorate, football is an unalloyed boon.   Despite costing an insane amount of money to maintain a program at that level, it’s still a cash cow.  It’s also a huge source of alumni pride and national recognition.

But there are maybe two dozen schools in that category.   And maybe another couple dozen who reasonably aspire to get there some day.

I wonder if it’s worth it even for schools in most of the big time conferences.   Is it really worth it for Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke?   They’re great schools and they have strong traditions in basketball, the other big money sport, but they’ll likely never be football powers.   (That’s true of Vanderbilt and Kentucky, too, but they’re free riding on the rest of the SEC.)   Why not cut their losses and eliminate the football programs?

For schools that don’t compete at the highest levels, it seldom makes sense at all.   The service academies and the Ivies have a long enough tradition that they’ve built a strong connection with their sports teams.   But I’m not sure what the Appalachian States, Delawares, and Jacksonville States — much less the Minnesota-Duluths, North Alabamas, and Delta States — get out of the deal.   In most cases, it’s hard to get students to go to the games and their allegiance is to one of the “real” teams.

FILED UNDER: Education, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John P says:

    Had to get your shot in at my Lions, huh James? *sniff*

    I guess it boils down to the question of why keep any sports at all? I can’t imagine the original intent of the first guys to take the field and toss around an oblong ball while wearing something that resembled their school colors was to generate anything other than a little fun.

    A very good system is now in place, albeit not in any “major” sport. Many universities allow club teams to participate and represent the university when there is not enough money or interest for the school to fund that sport.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    Division I sports are nothing but trouble. They are bad for any real student that gets involved in them. I mean, come on, if you were going to advise a student on how to succeed in academics would you ever recommend adding 60-100 hours per week of exhausting physical work to the classroom load?

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    I think in this day and age there just aren’t that many reasons for college students to go out and drink. Football provides one of those badly needed reasons.

  4. John Burgess says:

    Georgetown dropped football back in the late 60s, keeping only intramural teams. Apparently, though, it’s since brought it back on some sort of league level. Damned if I know why…

  5. Trumwill says:

    Sounds like Northeastern found a winning situation by cutting its football program. Good for them. But I disagree pretty strongly with Dr. Joyner that this is the best thing for the vast majority of universities. It’s often a byproduct of the mistaken belief that college football is all about the money and that it’s a business. It’s not. So a department losing money is not an indicator that it needs to be scrapped.

    You don’t have to be an Alabama for an athetics program to be worthwhile. You don’t he to make money. You don’t have to win national championships. One of the great things about college football is, in my mind, that success is defined by each school. When a school makes a bowl game for the first time in a decade, this is a huge deal. You may not think that a school should be proud of winning the Sun Belt, but for a school in the Sun Belt that’s what they have to play for and over ten thousand fans a week show up to watch the team play.

    I don’t understand why this should be irrelevant just because a school a couple hours away gets 5x or 10x that showing up. South Alabama will never be Alabama, but I don’t think it should be the case that if you can’t be Alabama you should just fold your tent up and go home.

    My own alma mater will never win a national championship and would almost certainly make James’s list of schools that should cut their football program, but I’m glad as heck that it’s there. It’s a perpetual link to my alma mater. I follow the team, it’s an immediate subject of conversation with those among my fellow alums who care. When I wear a shirt with my school’s insignia, strangers talk to me about how well or not-well we’re doing or other teams in our conference. People know of my school in large part because of its football program.

    I mean, if I were to ask you to name five universities in Texas, chances are most people would mention Texas Tech before they would mention schools that are actually better or larger than Texas Tech. Boise State is the worst public university in the state of Idaho… but people know it exists (as compared to Idaho State). It’s pretty unlikely they will ever win a national championship, but it’s still worth playing.

    It’s better to be on the top. But even if you’re not on the top, you gain something each step of the way. Worth the cost? That’s something for individual universities and their student bodies to decide. For every Northeastern and Hofstra, there are two universities making the other decision and adding football program (South Alabama, Southeastern Louisiana, Lamar University, Old Dominion University, Georgia State University, UNC-Charlotte, Texas-San Antonio all adding or recently added programs and a bunch of FCS schools looking to upgrade).

    I do wish that there were a way for schools to run football programs on smaller budgets. I think that there should be a third Division I subdivision for scholarship-free ball. Some FCS conferences have gone scholarship free, but there’s no system in place for schools to add football programs without committing to substantial scholarship money (not just for the football players, but the corresponding ones for female athletes).

  6. Eric J. says:

    As a Duke Alumnus, I’d be fine with the school dropping football, even though it’s in a bit of a resurgence right now. The main problem being that all ACC schools are required to compete in both football and basketball.

  7. James Joyner says:

    It’s better to be on the top. But even if you’re not on the top, you gain something each step of the way. Worth the cost? That’s something for individual universities and their student bodies to decide.

    Sure. The problem is that there’s been an arms race that’s driven up the associated costs. Even the Auburns of the world are losing money. That’s just insane.

    It may be that the smaller schools should hyper-regionalize, just playing schools within driving distance. But policies have built up such that, even at places like Troy — and even before it went to IA status — teams spend the night before HOME GAMES in hotels. Everyone’s running a semi-pro program but only a handful are getting much out of it.

    There is of course the esprit factor. And I think it’s genuinely there for some non-competitive schools. It was there, for example, at Army when I was there. It wasn’t, though, at Jax State, which has won Division II titles and is challenging for a I-AA/FCS title this year.

  8. Trumwill says:

    Sure. The problem is that there’s been an arms race that’s driven up the associated costs. Even the Auburns of the world are losing money. That’s just insane.

    I’m not sure why that’s insane. It’s the cost of being associated with Alabama instead of Troy. And if they dropped to Troy athletics budgets, they’d also drop to Troy revenues. I think it’s only insane if you look at it like these athletics departments should be self-sustaining. That notion is at odds with the history of scholastic sports. It’s the fact that Alabama makes money, not that Auburn loses it, that is the anomaly.

    Jacksonville State appears to pull in over 10k per game,. That’s not a small number of people. It only looks bad when you compare it to the most competitive fraction of schools. Why should those outliers be the basis of comparison as to whether or not a football program is worthwhile?

  9. MarkedMan says:

    Trumwill’s post reminded me of one of the reasons why I never really felt comfortable in the South when I lived there. In the Northeast we are proud of our Universities. In the South, they are proud of their Universities’ football teams.

  10. Franklin says:

    I’ve never heard of Northeastern or Boston University. I have, however, heard of Northwestern and Boston College, both of which have occasionally decent football teams.

    But I suspect that there’s a niche for football-less schools. A few more big universities will probably eventually go that route until there’s a reasonable balance.

  11. Rooster says:

    What I found more disturbing was when Hofstra chopped its football program, because that came from out of nowhere – facilities had been upgraded after hosting NY Jets training camp for years. Unlike Northeastern Hofstra had been semi competitive on the field while Northeastern was always scheduled as opponents Homecoming game for the easy W.

    Take a look at the Ivy League. Everyone knows Princeton, Harvard, Yale, etc. because of their sterling academic reputation and yet they still compete in arguably the worst conference in D-IAA football with no opportunity to compete in the FCS playoffs. They play only ten games and are without scholarships to dangle in front of recruits! So why do they still compete in football? Donors. Could they get along fine without football, yes, but the rest of the athletic department would suffer – the squash, crew, and women’s ice hockey team need football to balance them out.

    At the end of the day big time college football is based on the money. Even in the FBS it is the haves and the have nots. Would any team in the Sunbelt, even after going undefeated, ever get a chance to play for a BCS national title? Schools like LA Tech, New Mexico State, and Louisiana Monroe would be better served folding their football programs than continue to fight with one hand tied behind their back.

  12. Trumwill says:

    At the end of the day big time college football is based on the money. Even in the FBS it is the haves and the have nots. Would any team in the Sunbelt, even after going undefeated, ever get a chance to play for a BCS national title? Schools like LA Tech, New Mexico State, and Louisiana Monroe would be better served folding their football programs than continue to fight with one hand tied behind their back.

    That’s only true if a BCS national title is the only thing worth playing for. In the meantime, though, you can play for other bowls, to defeat rivals, to win your conference whatever it may be. There is something to play for at every level. That’s why so teams without any realistic chance at the BCS national title continue to play.

    At the end of the day big time college football is based on the money.

    Except that it’s not. If it were, all but a dozen or two programs would shut down immediately.

  13. Trumwill says:

    Trumwill’s post reminded me of one of the reasons why I never really felt comfortable in the South when I lived there. In the Northeast we are proud of our Universities. In the South, they are proud of their Universities’ football teams.

    To be fair to the south, it doesn’t matter how good their universities become (as academic institutions). They’ll always be considered cut-rate compared to the northeastern schools cause their student populations consist of backwood hicks and they’re generally {gasp} public schools or religious private ones.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    Now that I’ve insulted the South, I’ll defend it. There are world class programs out there. University of North Carolina Chapel hill is as good as any in applied technology – really, really interesting stuff. Loyola and Tulane, heck i just came across a cutting edge surgical robotics program in Vanderbilt. The list goes on. Are they Harvard? No, but Neither are the dozens of non-Harvard schools in the Northeast. Heck, even Harvard isn’t Harvard. I should have been clearer. If the South had sh*tty schools and the residents obsessed over the football teams, that would have made sense to me. But the fact is that the South has as good of schools as anywhere and that didn’t seem to be part of the fabric of the society. In fact, it wasn’t just Universities. If I asked a coworker about their local high school, I would be as likely to get a discussion of it’s football team and its division as to how many kids got scholarships.

  15. James Joyner says:

    . But the fact is that the South has as good of schools as anywhere and that didn’t seem to be part of the fabric of the society.

    I’d argue that there’s as much obsession with football at Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, USC, Cal, UCLA, and lots of other truly great universities outside the South. The main difference being that most southern states don’t also have pro teams.

  16. mannning says:

    Why are you dissecting Mom, Apple Pie and Football? Many of us grow up with the idea of playing on a good team, and doing heroic things for the crowd, and even having a chance at a bowl game==win or lose! You go out to the nearest field and scrimmage with your classmates, get the wind knocked out of you, or have leg cramps, but you do it day in and day out because it is fun. To progress to more organized versions of a truly team sport is the dream of kids everywhere.

    Thank God that this insidious idea of dropping football didn’t occur while I was a student! The idea must arise from those that didn’t play; those that are academics at heart (meaning non-athletes and intellectuals); those that have a passive leaning; and those that fear the mayhem on the gridiron (a thought that brings twinges to my legs!).

    (One just might also try to work in something about academic progressives that wish us a more feminist.or lollypop culture!)

    Any nationwide vote on the idea would go down in flames, though individual administrations of progressive schools may elect to deemphasize the sport anyway.

  17. mannning says:

    That only four Southern states have pro teams doesn’t seem to be very important to me. The key is recruitment, and I can attest to the coverage of both high school and college players in the South as being quite thorough, when taken with the connections the coaches maintain with college and pro recruiters. The rosters of the pro teams are riddled with players from obscure schools that still play football in lessor leagues.

    That there are few pro teams in the South means that the high school and college teams garner lots of strong support that might otherwise go to the pros.

  18. James Joyner says:

    That there are few pro teams in the South means that the high school and college teams garner lots of strong support that might otherwise go to the pros.

    Exactly. It’s one reason that college football is somewhat bigger in the South than elsewhere: less dilution of fan enthusiasm. Although Texas manages to be rabid about high school, college, and pro ball.

  19. mannning says:

    Or is it five? Tennessee, Texas (2 teams), Florida(3 teams), Lousiana, and …..Carolina?
    For a total of 8 teams in the south.

  20. mannning says:

    Then too, football-minded people in Virginia seem to root for the Redskins, which is on the border, as it were. So make it 9 pro teams the South supports.

  21. James Joyner says:

    I’m not sure I consider Texas and Florida to be part of the South. Texas, which is like a whole ‘nother country, is Western or Southwestern. And Florida is a mixed bag. Jacksonville is probably Southern but certainly Miami isn’t. Not sure about Tampa.

  22. mannning says:

    This depends entirely on the definition of Southern! Geographically, there can be no argument. Texas was settled by Tennesseeans–part of it anyway! Miami is more Cuban, so I can agree there, sort of, but it is still South of the M-D line, as is Tampa. Culturally, we have a very mixed bag, for sure, but how that relates to football, players and fans I am not exactly clear!

  23. Trumwill says:

    Or is it five? Tennessee, Texas (2 teams), Florida(3 teams), Lousiana, and …..Carolina?

    Don’t forget Georgia.

    As for the rest, I would say that Texas is split between south and southwest with the dividing line occurring somewhere west of Houston but probably east of Austin and separating Dallas and Fort Worth. I agree that Miami doesn’t really count, though I would give it to Tampa and definitely Jacksonville. New Orleans is a bit of a wildcard, though, because South Louisiana is a pretty distinct place and New Orleans a distinct place within it. And, of course, Atlanta and Charlotte (and probably Houston?) are filled with carpetbaggers anyway.

  24. mannning says:

    Gads, I forgot Atlanta! Thanks for the reminder. I am sticking with the Mason-Dixon Line divider, and to hell with trying to sort out the verying cultures! So I count 9 pro teams now.

    In any event, there seems to be a team near enough for fans to root for all over the South.

    I root for the Colts and Payton Manning, despite having grown up very close to the Redskins.
    Payton is a joy to watch.

  25. mannning says:

    OOPS! Does the Line cross up from Baltimore and the Ravens? That would make 10 teams.

  26. James Joyner says:

    Baltimore’s certainly not Southern!

    And, while there are indeed a lot of NFL teams in your broadly-defined South, most of them are quite new. The old line NFL teams were around in the 1930s but all of the Southern teams start from after 1960. Atlanta is the first true Southern team and they started in 1967. Most of the others are expansion teams from the 1990s and later.

    People in Georgia might root for the Falcons but it’s not going to supplant the Bulldogs. Or even the Rambling Wreck. And I don’t think many people in Alabama care about the Falcons.

  27. mannning says:

    Well, next maybe we should explore the origins of owners, players and coaches on teams to find out what, if any Southern influence there is per team, to go along with the mixed bag of area cultures. But, this is getting far away from my resources and time! For the sake of comity, I will concede that Baltimore is one step too far, even if they are only an hour away from the DC area on a good traffic day.

    In the end, pro football draws players and coaches from all regions of the nation, and the team location acts as a fan stimulus in the region. Teams do move, also, and seem to do well with their new fans and cultures sooner or later.

    In all this chatting, the original question posed has been subverted, probably because the main reponders consider it a low probability event for their university, their alumni, and their region to deemphasize football, unless something rather untword happens.

  28. Trumwill says:

    This isn’t entirely an issue of the South and kind of tangential on the whole, but one thing worth noting is that when you think of middling and low-population states with huge football support, it tends to be in states without teams of their own: Nebraska, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, and so on. Meanwhile, those teams with NFL teams have to be much larger to have fan support: Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Florida.

    I think that Joyner has a point, though, that the teams from the south came kind of late. And so they rallied around the university teams as representing the state as a whole. When the NFL teams come along, well they represent the big city they are attached to as much as the state as a whole. And, of course, by the time the NFL came along, ticket prices had escalated to the point that they were not easily affordable. College game tickets can be high, but I don’t think they are as high.

  29. Jeff Donaldson says:

    Uh… why don’t you do homework. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may go through periodic droughts on the gridiron, and they do not have a National Championship to show for their efforts. But good or bad, the Football Tar heels generate positive revenue. Those millions are spent on Olympic sports, women’s athletics. When the SEC football schools start supporting over 25 varsity programs and compete for the Sears Cup, while maintaining wonderful academic rankings.. then come call me.

    Calling for UNC to drop football ignores the facts, revealing your SEC bias.

    I remember a few months ago when talk of Super Conferences was swirling.. and the SEC would like a foothold in North Carolina via UNC… and we all knew it would never happen because of all the sporst we’d have to drop because they’re not played in the myopic SEC.

  30. Dwayne says:

    Why don’t the football factories drop academics? Or at least drop the “University” out of their franchise names.

  31. Trumwill says:

    Jeff, I find it difficult to believe that UNC would decline an offer from the SEC if one were extended on the basis of unsupported sports. You can put the non-supported sports in another conference. I am not one that believes that it’s “all about the money” but the income differential between the ACC and SEC would be too hard to ignore for just about any school not named the University of Texas at Austin. The only reason I can see them declining is if neither NCSU and Duke are invited and they don’t want to lose the rivalries.

    Right now it’s a moot question because the SEC is not looking to expand. But contrary to many that say that they would obviously invite Miami and/or Florida State, I think it far more likely that UNC (and, if necessary, NCSU) get the invite along with maybe the Virginia schools rather than the Georgia-SC-Florida axis that they already have a toe in. So we are in agreement that UNC would be attractive to the SEC.