The New York Times has swung its spotlight on Boulder once again, but this time with the somewhat implausible notion that CU is leading the way to end college football. The motivation for the piece is a pair of votes by two regents against approving the contract for a new football coach–not because of any objection to the coach himself, but to protest supporting a game that damages the brains of its players.
This arguably is the third strike against football here at CU, but don’t expect any changes. There was first a series of recruiting scandals that took out most of the university administration, then there continues to be an uproar over the amount of money collected and spent on football and how little goes to benefit players, and now we are recognizing the incongruity of higher education being the site for systematic brain damage leading to early death or suicide. Add them all up you’d think this would be the death knell for the sport at CU. Don’t hold your breath, (though it would probably end college admissions scams we’ve heard so much about recently)….
First, let’s play a what-if game. What if CU shut down its football program? What would be the damage? First off, probably CU gets kicked out of the Pac 12 (or any other Big 5 league) and loses all that shared TV money. You end the problem of overpaid football coaches in one stroke, so there’s that. Obviously a lot of staff would be fired, but what of the rest of the athletic department? While football promoters like to claim that football brings in big bucks to the university as a whole, in point of fact it is really the rest of the athletic department that balances its budget on football–ending football won’t cause the physics department to fire professors. Kill football and you either subsidize athletics significantly or you trim it all the way back to a couple of teams that might break even financially or you essentially go the club sports route. And if you do any of those things, odds are that the number of scholarships for, say, volleyball or lacrosse would drop to such small numbers that admitting pretend athletes in exchange for a bribe would be nearly impossible.
What would be the blowback? Certainly some wealthy alums would cease to give to old CU. You might see the school drop in any party school ranks and so admissions might drop some. None of that sounds too fatal.
The fear of public university presidents, generally unstated, is that losing football loses a school support in two places: alums and the legislature. Beyond the alums contributing to the athletic program, alumni events at away football games allows campus fundraisers to connect with alumni scattered about the country–and CU has alumni all over the place. In a similar vein, legislators won’t have football games to attend, and some of their constituents who abided the commie-socialist-hippies of the Peoples Republic of Boulder might ask their representative to cut back on this panty-waisted school. How real are these risks? Nobody really knows, both because dropping Division 1 football is almost unheard of and because these sorts of secondary effects lurk in the shadows. University presidents have as a main purpose raising money to keep the university going; they are not happy with adding impediments to that task and so they swallow hard and smile and say how important football is to the university, whether they believe it or not.
But CU might just be well positioned to take that risk and earn the attention the Times has focused on it. Funding from the state wobbles below 5% of the overall budget; if it vanished entirely, it might hurt a bit but not be as damaging as it would be for most of the rest of the Pac-12. Alumni relations are harder to gauge, but it could be that by acting as a leader in the field we might see some alums step up as others step back.
There are a lot of reasons to end college football. It is a free training service for the NFL; let them fund their own minor leagues like baseball does, thank you very much. It damages the students the school recruits–often permanently. Is there no blacker mark than the man who got the school its only Heisman trophy killing himself about a mile from his alma mater because of the mental damage of the game? The money tempts corruption–recruiting violations, ethics violations and other unseemly activity. That same promise of money corrupts students, some of whom do not take their studies seriously–and the demands placed on college football players often preclude them from pursuing some majors because of time conflicts (geology has been one of those majors).
Regents in Colorado are elected. It will be interesting to see down the road if voting in favor or against football plays any role in campaigns in the coming years. That alone will be the place where we can see if football is to fade from the college calendar, for it won’t go down without a fight…