A university sacrifices its football team

UniversityAlabamaBirmingham_BlazersThe University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB)’s president announced plans to terminate that school’s football team.

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.


UAB’s president described his decision entirely in economic terms, like so:

“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.

The supermajority of college sports teams lose money.  UAB’s needed tens of millions of dollars from student fees and elsewhere in the general budget to stay open.


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.

(thanks to Lisa HinchliffeTodd Bryant, Scott Danielson, and Brenda Landis)

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15 Responses to A university sacrifices its football team

  1. Here in Hawai’i, BYU Hawai’i eliminated all sports (including football) to focus on their mission. It is a Division II school, so I suspect both the economics and politics of the situation were very different.

  2. prairietech says:

    I see this from the admission and the financial sides. I hate cutting programs like football as it is the way for many students to go to school. Not everyone can be a Duck (Oregon reference) so other football programs are important. I wonder though, with the big schools, why graduation rates of athletes is not often discussed? I would LOVE to see those graduation and retention rates part of the new college football ranking process…yep I just said that out loud!

    • How important are college sports to admissions these days?

      • Tom Warger says:

        Actually, some small colleges are finding that even a fairly modest football program can be a significant draw in admissions. In a small scale, 5 or 10 more students can be a big deal. Of course, they can’t hope to have a program that involves special scholarships and airline travel for a team of 60.

        And, the same rationale applies in other sports: a chance to continue at the college level what students began in high school–but not in the Division 1 model.

      • Tom, can you say more about how a sports team draws in those students?

  3. prairietech says:

    This is Vicky Romano…forgot I was logged in as my blog name

  4. Brian, if this were 5 years ago, I’d laugh at you and ask if you were on drugs to even bring this up. College football might be a strange world to you, but not to me. As an Ohio high school football coaches daughter, who’s first word as an infant was Woody (Hayes). I’d say you were nuts for bringing this up. But, after Penn State and the recent North Carolina scandals, I’m taking a hard look at football programs in Higher Education…education in general. As a true extracurricular activity (in balance with curricular, service, and internship experiences), football and other sports allow the students the opporunity to connect and apply classroom learned skills with other areas of their lives. The learning becomes authentic. Sorry to bring eportfolios into this, but this is what the folio process allows students to do … visually scaffold knowledge and connect their course learning to other experiences outside of the classroom. Actually, student-owned eportfolios (emphasis on student-owned) enhance self-determined learning behaviors (autonomy, relatedness, and self-efficacy). Students intrinsically take control of their own learning. The goal is to promote a wonder and desire for learning over a lifetime. Does this sound as if I’m a Pollyanna of sorts? Well, I’m not. My Stony Brook football students with eportfolios have posted evidence of the leadership, team management, diversity, service, critical and creative thinking skills gained through football. They visually have demonstrated the learning connections in the classroom to the football field. They are balanced with their learning experiences. Also, the folio process helps the academic advisors keep track of the student athletes’ academic progress.
    Shame on University of North Carolina, U of Alabama, and others for not recognizing the positive relationship between curricular and extracurricular activities and the intellectual capabilities of their student athletes. Shame on them for not bring learning experiences, in and out of the classroom, into balance. The UNC Vice Chancellor laughed at eportfolio and reflective media use when he was at Stony Brook. Shame on the University of Alabama for not realizing the learning value of incorporating extracurriculars with curriculars. All of our institutions of learning need to bring extracurricular sports and other activities into balance with the curricular activities. Come on, it’s a no brainer … and we call ourselves Higher Education.
    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of considering our student athletes as “dumb jocks”, realize their brilliance. Quit enabling them for the sake of performance and the almighty alumni and ESPN dollar. I would think performance would be enhanced by incorporating experiential learning in the classroom. EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM!!! Check out what’s happening at the Yale Center – http://ceid.yale.edu. We all need to take a lesson from Yale – http://admissions.yale.edu/extracurriculars. Their football players are involved in invention and discovery. We have to wake up and not consider our students as consumers, but as makers. This is the age of the Maker Generation ( a throwback to the age of John Dewey). Instead of throwing on a band-aid by dropping sports programs, heal the learning process. Revive learning.
    Final comment – The president of U of Alabama is a coward and I truly don’t believe he is concerned about learning and student success. I’d be more concerned with the value of learning at these institutions than x-ing the football programs. Wake up America.

    • Nancy, many thanks for a passionate, informed, and thoughtful response. (Actually, it scared WordPress, which demanded I manually approve it)

      I love your use of eportfolios to connect athletics with academics. That sounds brilliant.

      All too often, though, I see the opposite happening. As you described, too many campuses simply exploit athletes and build up a division between playing and learning.

      Bravo for your work, Nancy!

  5. BTW, Brian, you know I’m your biggest fan 🙂

  6. jtabron says:

    Not sure how ESPN defines “school”, but (though Hofstra is no Ohio State) our football program was closed five years ago in favor of funding the academic programs more.

  7. Pingback: Mercyhurst considers a queen sacrifice | Bryan Alexander

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