This is interesting to me for two reasons: its relation to my queen sacrifice model and for the trend of concerns about college sports. Not to make too much of it, Ray Webb’s decision poses questions for the future of American higher education.
I must confess before going further that I am not a sports fan. College football is a strange world to me, despite winning three degrees from the University of Michigan. What follows is a first attempt on a tricky problem by an outsider. Comments are most definitely welcome.
1. QUEEN SACRIFICE
“The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB,” Watts said in a statement released by the university.
Moreover, these problems will get worse, and for reasons beyond campus control:
“As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the athletic department, football is simply not sustainable.”
Note the emphasis on the broader academic football world, in particular its governing body. It’s not UAB’s fault that costs increased, in other words.
In the queen sacrifice model financial challenges make academic sacrifices attractive. UAB choose not to cut programs nor faculty, but three* sports teams. I don’t know if they considered academic reductions to support athletics, but this week’s decision didn’t touch on academics at all. It was about sports teams costing too much, and adjustments to them as a result.
2. CONCERNS ABOUT COLLEGE SPORTS
I’ve been tracking the possibility of campuses reducing their sports offerings for several years. In 2011 while live-blogging a New School conference I heard the University of Michigan’s president Jim Duderstadt describe college sports as “a beast that must be tamed”. That was partly for financial reasons, and also for moral ones, given the Penn State scandal was in the air.
And yet no institution has taken steps since. Indeed, by 2013 public college and university coaches became some of the highest paid state officials. ESPN claims no school has shut down a football program since 1995.
So why now? Perhaps financial problems at UAB simply became that intractable.
It’s a bold move, since it irks a potentially powerful campus constituency. Current team members, support staff, devoted students can all agitate against the decision. Alumni and donors may also be unhappy. In fact, anyone in the state of Alabama can be upset and speak out, since UAB is a public institutions. Resistance could appear on campus, at board meetings, or in Montgomery.
A larger question is, what next for higher education and varsity athletics? Will UAB’s decision become the first of others, sparking a wave of imitators who also face similar financial challenges? After all, many schools lose money on sports. In fact,
125 schools have athletic programs subsidized at a higher percentage than UAB. UAB’s subsidy is about the same as Colorado State, Ohio, Virginia Commonwealth or New Hampshire. Some 33 schools are subsidized at higher dollar figures, including Cincinnati, Kent State, James Madison and Houston. Rutgers and UNLV actually posted double the subsidy as UAB.
If you take the subsidies out of the mix and look simply at the bottom line, 36 schools across the country are hemorrhaging more than UAB. Rutgers and UNLV are bleeding money at twice the rate of UAB.
Perhaps we can add to the queen sacrifice a knight sacrifice.
Or will UAB remain an outlier, as other campuses refuse to follow suit? Campuses support money-losing sports for a variety of reasons, including: ties to alumni; attracting male students; outreach to prospective students in an increasingly competitive market; ties to a state; the hope of making money; a sense of building campus spirit. Passions can rise. In fact, after tweeting about this story I’ve received two anti-Webb, pro-Blazers tweets (1,2) from people I don’t know. It’s very difficult for a campus administration to move against some combination of those forces. Perhaps the status quo ante UAB will persist.
*Also cut, the less visible and costly bowling and rifle programs.