Should We Ditch Football?
By Gary A. Olson
In recent years, some colleges have eliminated their football teams or drastically reduced their athletics programs, in response to fiscal crises. But are sports teams really a drain on academic budgets?
Among the institutions that have announced plans to eliminate their football teams are California State University at Northridge (after 40 years), Hofstra University (after 69 years), Northeastern University (after 74 years), and Western Washington University (after 107 years). Those universities decided that their investment in one or more athletics programs was not paying sufficient dividends.
Often when a university announces plans to close a program, officials will, in the next breath, mention the potential cash savings. I remember reading that Hofstra hoped to save $4.5-million by eliminating its football program, money the university would then reallocate to scholarships and other expenses.
Historically, when budgets get tight, athletics programs have been a favorite target of some faculty members and administrators. That’s not the case at institutions with highly successful teams, but for those with mediocre athletics programs, many constituents find it tempting to sacrifice an underproductive team to the greater good of the institution.
An athletic director at a midsize research university told me about his constant struggle over this issue with the faculty senate on his campus. “Every few months or so, one or more senators would attempt to pass a resolution stating that the senate recommends dumping our football team,” he said. “It’s true that our team has not been competitive for some years, but what is very frustrating is that these senators have no idea of how much even a mediocre team brings to an institution.”
He pointed out that, not long before our conversation, a donor had made a substantial gift to an academic program on the campus. “He made that contribution because initially our basketball team made him proud to be an alumnus of this college, which, in turn, reminded him of how much he had learned from the faculty in his major. He wanted to contribute to his academic program as a way of expressing his thanks for helping him become so successful in life.” Jettisoning the football program, the athletic director said, would be shortsighted, especially since student participation in athletics is a much more complex endeavor than merely winning or losing.
I have to admit, I was similarly shortsighted several decades ago, when the university where I worked proposed creating a football team. We were in a state where, in any given year, you might find two or three football teams listed in the top 10 nationally.
Many professors on that campus thought it would be foolhardy to invest in a new football team to rival the other, highly competitive ones at public universities in the state. “Why not invest in raising faculty salaries?” some of us argued. “Or in student scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships?”
As it turned out, I was wrong. The university created the team, largely with private money, and it went on to become nationally competitive and the pride of many of us who had originally been skeptical. Far from draining money from academic programs, it helped bring cash into the university, not only in the form of direct revenue from events but also from auxiliary contracts—sales of memorabilia, fees for playing certain games, revenue from media companies, and the like.
Today, at the university where I am provost, some faculty members have made similar arguments: “Why not close the football team and reallocate the funding to academic programs?” And that sentiment is echoed at other institutions across the nation in these challenging economic times.
What my athletic-director friend found so frustrating about such discussions is that many factors are invisible to those unfamiliar with the overall workings of a university. Even a noncompetitive or “losing” team can help the university in multiple ways.
The mere fact of having a football team, for example, is often a plus for students thinking about enrolling. I’ve had students tell me that although they were not sports fans, they felt good about attending an institution that sponsored a football team. Perhaps it is because football and college life are so intertwined in the American psyche, but whatever the explanation, having a team can help recruit students, and having a winning team can help attract even better students.
Similarly, having an active athletics program, especially if it includes football, is often important to alumni. Even if the team is experiencing a poor year, the games themselves can evoke memories of when alumni were students, perhaps when the team was more successful. Having a team can help keep alumni engaged with the university, and, of course, a winning team can energize them. Those may seem like intangible benefits, but alumni are among an institution’s greatest supporters, financially and otherwise. Keeping them engaged, even with a mediocre team, can have substantial payoffs.
The truth is, athletics events, especially football, are often key ways of attracting potential donors to contribute — and not just to the athletics program. When I served as a dean at another institution, I worked closely with donors who had allegiances both to athletics teams and to an academic program. Frequently those donors wanted to support both. I am certain that in many of those cases, we might not have been successful in interesting the donors to give to academic programs were they not first interested in athletics.
Sports teams can foster a deep sense of community and social solidarity, even when those teams lose more often than they win. One alumna told me that she would “never give up” on her team.
Most important, athletics can increase access to higher education for some students who might not have had the financial ability to attend college were it not for athletics scholarships and other aid. And, of course, the discipline and perseverance that a student learns from participating in sports are skills essential to mastering intellectual work as well.
Rather than pitting athletics against academics, what is needed is close collaboration between the two. I was exceedingly impressed with the approach of one athletic director I know. An institution where I once worked had just hired him, and one of his first actions was to request a meeting with the provost, deans, and other academic leaders.
At the meeting, he assured us all that he saw athletics and academic programs as close partners, and that his own success would be linked in part to the academic success of his student-athletes. He then proceeded to make clear to all athletes that he expected them to excel in their studies as well as on the field.
Those of us on the academic side of the house did our part as well — making sure that the athletes had access to academic-support services, such as peer mentors, tutorial programs, and writing and math centers. In some cases, we shared the costs of those services. The collaboration resulted in academically stronger students and more-disciplined athletes.
That athletic director’s attitude is certainly a long way from what we often found in the bad old days, when coaches would sometimes attempt to intimidate or bribe faculty members (often with choice tickets to games) to overlook athletes’ excessive absences or to be especially lenient with grades.
The point is that athletics and academic programs can — and should — work together for the greater benefit of students. Far from a drain on the academic endeavor, athletics can be the perfect complement, both through increasing community and alumni support and through adding disciplined, hard-working students to the institution’s overall population.
I am not suggesting that institutions like Hofstra have made a mistake in eliminating football or other programs. Every institution must assess that decision in the context of its own campus. But what is clear is that often there is more than meets the eye when it comes to making such decisions. The one certainty is that athletics and academic programs should not be seen as somehow working against one another.
 Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and editor, with John W. Presley, of “The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America’s Academic Leaders” (Paradigm).