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    College Football in the 21st Century

    Critics of higher education in America generally present themselves as modernizing reformers. They claim America's universities are hidebound, outmoded, and fundamentally inefficient. Maybe, maybe not. It's an easy charge to make about an institution, like the Western university, which is several centuries old, and tends to sound plausible no matter the merits of the particular case. "It's the 21st century," the standard argument goes, "so it's time to get rid of anachronisms like tenured faculty/four-year bachelor's degrees/foreign language departments/semesters/public funding for state universities." This "out with the old, in with the new" argument sounds logical when it actually is logical, but also when it's not. It can be used for genuinely necessary reform, but also to promote poorly thought-out ideas that can't stand much direct examination.

    What's striking in a climate where public universities are facing massive cutbacks in the name of "modernization", and students are being asked to pay higher tuition for fewer classroom resources, is that the people talking about "reinventing" higher education almost never talk about college football.

    If we're talking about starting over and reinventing the American university from scratch, big-time college football would not be an obvious thing to keep on the table. It's about as much of a frill as frills get. (This doesn't mean that I'm not personally planning to enjoy the Orange Bowl, or that you shouldn't. Frills are fun. They wouldn't exist if they weren't.) It doesn't have much obvious relationship to the core educational mission. It's expensive as all hell, and generally loses a hell of a lot of money. (There's a lot of money to be made in TV fees and bowl appearances, but very few schools actually pull down enough of that money to turn a profit, and you need to spend tens of millions on your football program even to compete for that money in the first place. Lots of schools with "BCS" Division I programs lose millions on football. Berkeley, for example, has been losing $6-8 million on football every year now for years, and raiding the academic budget to make up those losses. Seriously.) Those tens of millions of dollars go to fund an extra-curricular activity that about a hundred or so students actually participate in, on campuses that might have fifteen or thirty thousand students.

    Now, the conventional wisdom is that sports programs pay for themselves, and more, by increasing enrollment and bringing in donations from happy alumni. But if we're hard-headed modernizers, we pride ourselves on not believing the conventional wisdom. We need hard data! And when it comes to big-ticket football, the conventional wisdom turns out not to be true at all. It's very hard to demonstrate any serious or enrollment gains from a winning sports program, and if you think about it honestly, you already kind of know this. There are plenty of schools whose football teams will never (and really should never) be on television, but still have to turn away more good applicants than they could take. You can think of plenty of enviable schools, the kind that proud parents and resume-writers brag about, whose sports programs are really, really, really not the draw. As for the donations that a big time football program can bring, usually all of that cash (like the TV money) goes to feeding the football program itself, and the football program is always hungry.

    Now we're getting to the point where commitment to education at public universities and commitment to football at public universities don't coexist easily. Spending tens of millions on football (and $3-7 million just on a coach's salary) always annoyed some professors, but not in any way that rocked the boat. But when state budget cuts lead even a great public system like the University of California to cut back its course offerings and shrink its faculty while raising the tuition to three times what it was in 2000 and then ">raising it again, raiding Berkeley's academic budget for six or seven million dollars a year on top of the official athletics budget starts to be a very tough sell. [For the record, UC's in-state tuition and fees were about $3500 or $3600 in 2000-01. In 2010-11, they were more than $10,800. The Regents just voted another 8 percent hike, for a much diminished educational product.]

    I'm not going to pretend that killing college football would fix the funding problems of American education. Nor am I going to pretend I don't enjoy a good college game myself. But I think understanding where big-time college football comes from helps us understand what's happening to higher education in general, because college football as we know it is a byproduct of an educational system that emerged in post-war America and is now passing away. They grew up together.

    American football evolved on college campuses; most of the rules that we think of as basic to the sport were hashed out between students from various Ivy League and other exclusive Eastern schools in the late 1800s. Of course, it wasn't the Ivy League then, because the "Ivy League" is a sports conference, and college football wasn't officially overseen by the colleges. It was the students' thing, not the administrators', and administrations only gradually started sponsoring the games as a way to get some control over them and to reduce the injury and mayhem. Football was a form of student rebellion against universities that were too much like universities: too much about book learning and discipline and the life of the mind. The academic focus of college made a lot of students unhappy because colleges in those days were much more socially exclusive than they were intellectually exclusive. Most people were there because of who their parents were; whether they had any academic gifts or interests was a secondary question. Of course, there were some brilliant and dedicated minds at every school, and every college had its handful of extremely bright scholarship boys, but the median undergraduate at a place like Harvard or Princeton in 1880 wasn't nearly as good a student as the median undergraduates in those places would be in 1980. So a lot of those wealthy, connected and not particularly intellectual young men got so sick of declining Latin nouns and whatnot that they had to get outside in the fresh air, form up into flying wing formations, and maim each other.

    (The next time someone like David Brooks gets all misty-eyed about the old-fashioned elites and how they had so much more character than today's careerist collegians, remember that this is what he's talking about. Brooks is nostalgic for anti-intellectual snobs with inherited fortunes, as opposed to middle-class kids who got into Princeton because of their grades and who will need to find a job after graduation. Brooks especially gets nostalgic for the old Ivy Leaguers when he's writing about people like Barack Obama or Elena Kagan who wouldn't have been allowed into those exclusive schools in 1890.)

    So for a solid seventy or eighty years, football was the hobby and ritual of the tiny minority who went to college. A lot of its glamor came from its upper-class context. This is when Harvard and Yale were still major football powers, and while there was an NFL, you couldn't make a full year's living playing in it. The point of playing college football was not to go pro, but to network with influential alumni. This was pretty much how things stood until well after World War II.

    College football was transformed into a national sports-entertainment industry during the post-war expansion of American higher education. Between the G.I. Bill and the massive growth in public education to accommodate the Baby Boom, American higher education turned into something very different from anything that had gone before. College education had become an expected middle-class privilege, and the largest, wealthiest middle class that America had ever seen sent the largest generation of youngsters in our nation's history to college. The resulting changes were wide-reaching and fundamental, both for our society and our education system. Increased spending on education both followed from and helped to drive the growing wealth of an expanding middle class, fueled booming economic growth, and weakened the relative position of the older elites. The primary driver for all of this change wasn't the private colleges, which did increase enrollments but could never have met the new demand on their own. What changed things was the state universities, funded generously by state legislatures and educating college students on a then-unprecedented scale at steeply subsidized tuition. But the private colleges were transformed as well, becoming more academic and less aristocratic; once the privilege of going to college was no longer restricted to the wealthy and connected, the only way to stay one of the top colleges in America was to have highly talented students, and Ivy League campuses became increasingly dominated by bright middle-class strivers (of the kind that David Brooks despises, and once was) rather than the old blue-blooded Philistines. The blue bloods didn't go away, but they ceased to be the majority even on elite campuses, and they stopped setting the tone.

    At the same time, college football had a wider audience and more alumni, than it had ever had before. And now that huge prosperous new middle class all had TVs in the living room. The NFL began to rise to national prominence at the end of the 1950s, and the market for televised Saturday-afternoon games was suddenly quite lucrative. It was fairly easy money for colleges to begin with; they could get fat TV contracts for the amateur teams that they were already fielding, and anyway, the schools had comfortable budgets to begin with. Spending a little bit more on the football team in order to pull down some big network-TV bucks seemed like a great investment: a small expense for what could be an incommensurately large gain.

    Now, of course, things have gotten far more competitive in every sense of that word, and the potential gains from TV rights have already been priced into the cost of chasing those dollars. But at the same time, the initial conditions that allowed colleges, universities, and their football teams to grow and thrive in the 1960s have ended. What we're living through at the moment is the end of the post-war education system, with its low prices, high per-student spending, and broad accessibility. We are sliding back toward an older model, educating fewer students, allowing less upward mobility, and increasingly dominated by selective private institutions, just like in the bad old days. This march toward the past is part of a larger attempt to diminish and weaken the American middle class that emerged after World War II, and move toward a less egalitarian and less mobile society vaguely resembling our social arrangements between 1870 and 1940. State funding for higher education now represents only a fraction of the cost of public colleges and universities, forcing even great public universities to cut how much they spend on teaching and charge students much, much more for it. (Think of UC Berekely and their 200%+ tuition increase over the past decade.) Some things won't change. There will still be some superb colleges in this country, a few of them likely better than American universities have ever been. A select few students will continue getting fabulous educations. But that number will be smaller, and many of their peers in less privileged colleges will get very, very different educations.

    College football will survive the conditions that allowed it to become what it is. In the end it's more suited for what American education is becoming than it was for what American education was in the last half of the 20th century. The legitimately amateur programs that still remain will continue on, just as they have been since the 19th century: opportunities for educationally privileged young men to bond with each other and to please alumni. And the high-profile programs with the 100,000-seat stadiums and the television contracts will fit the new corporate model of higher education nicely. Those football programs are narrowly pre-professional; they prepare their students for NFL careers and not much else. (At many such programs, football recruits don't even learn how to fill in a college application. This is literally true.) At the same time, Big College Football is entirely unconcerned about the vast majority of its athletes who will never be able to land the only job that college has prepared them for. Students will be allowed to drop out and drift away when the program has used them up; the model is enrollment, not retention. Developing the student as a whole person is entirely out of the question. And the rewards of the students' hard work and effort are only for the fortunate few, while everyone else (no matter how hard they have worked) is labeled a failure. And a small group of privileged people will stand to make a massive profit. There's a reason that people who agitate for "modernizing" our colleges and universities don't complain about big time, pro in all but name college football. It already looks exactly the way they want college to look.


    You  have brought up a very important point about college expensive football.  The same thing with professional foot ball.  The fat cats that own the teams wants the public to pay for their stadiums.  They also want the schools to train their future stars at the public expense.  I wonder how long it will take before students and the public will demand that this program is cut too.         

    Nicely done.  There is another dynamic that plays a big role in this "football syndrome" facing universities: the drive to build the endowments.  The last time I heard, the largest endowment in the country is the University of Texas, followed by Harvard.  When UT wins the championship, there is a spike in charitable giving to the endowment.  University administrators across the country want the alumni to be happy because happy alumni donate.  And there are plenty of wealthy alumni who take the success of their football team very seriously.  Even at the smaller schools. Fielding a winning team could be the difference between getting that 20 million dollar gift for a new building and not getting it.

    I don't know the Berekely situation, but while 6 to 8 million dollars may be coming out of the general budget for football, I would bet that millions are coming into the endowment.  But these are two different pots of money.  The administrators, being bureaucrats, are institutionalized to focus on the latter pot, especially the large departments whose sole purpose for existing is to increase that endowment.  And increasing that endowment is built on finding out what the wealthy alumni interests are and then aligning the university with those interests. 

    When Oregon takes the field this coming Monday, it will really be the Oregon & Nike Ducks because of alumni Phil Knight and the amount of money he pours into the university outside the general revenue.  The general problem is that alumni money is almost always directed to specific projects and programs.  There aren't many uber wealthy alumni giving huge major gifts to the literature or philosophy departments (which one can speculate is related to the fact that few of those graduating from these liberal arts programs go on to become one of the uber wealthy.)

    I hate to be contrary, AT, but Harvard's endowment is $27.6 billion at last check, and UT Austin's was $7.2 billion. It is true that the whole University of Texas system has a roughly $24 billion dollar endowment, but that endowment runs many universities, not just the place that most people think of when they say "UT." $7.2 billion is far and away the best endowmentof any public university, and better than many pricey Ivies, but still not in Princeton or Yale's range.

    Even so, UT's private endowment (the $2 billion of that that comes from private donors and not from the state) is likely not built on football as much as it is the success of the academic enterprise. Alumni tend to donate to schools because the schools have made them successful.

    The sorry truth is, though, that football does not bring in donations to the general endowmnet. It brings in donations for the team, the stadium, the practice field, and whatever. It would be nice if the $6-8 million annual loss on football were bringing even half that much cash to the endowment, but there's no evidence that this is so. (Berkeley alums aren't the most football-driven that you'll find.)

    It is true that universities' main academic goal is building the endowment. But many of the great endowment-builders do very nicely with an old-fashioned amateur football program. (See Harvard's $27-28 billion and Yake $15-16 billion.) The warm glow of beating the traditional rival on the Saturday before Thanksgiving is real, but you can produce that warm feeling pretty cheaply. Spending ten times as much on football, because you're in a hyper-competitive league, doesn't make the alumni ten times more generous. It just makes those alumni donations ten times more expensive for the school.

    I'm sure your numbers are right.  I was just going off a major gifts presentatio conducted by the lead "donor cultivator" for Harvard some years ago.  He was the one that brought up UT and the football program.  I'm sure if most universities did a cost/benefit analysis (money saved from eliminating football vs money lost from upset alumni) they would see it would make more fiscal sense overall to eliminate the football program or scale it down.  I would say that university administrators get tunnel vision (as do we all) and the wealthy alumni that tend to be the most boisterous are those around the "booster clubs" and such, creating an impression not related to the actual perception of most of the alumni, that success on the field is of prime importance.  One just see how much energy (including websites devoted to this sole purpose) is put into those who want to see Michigan fire their football coach (at a cost of 2+ million dollar buyout) so they can go get someone else, to see how administrators can get a skewed perception of what the alumni want.  This impression is increased because it during the games (and the shindigs going on before and after) when a lot of the donation professionals get to have some face to face time with alumni that are generally scattered over the country. 

    This impression leads to conclusions such as so and so wouldn't have given that money for the new music building if the team had gone 2 and 11, instead of 11 and 2, even though so and so did not actually state it that way when he or she cut the check.

    ESPN, as part of its 30 for 30 documentary series, had a real good program on the alumni abuse that led to SMU getting the "death penalty."  What was interesting was how the corruption was driven by the "competition" between the various alumni in the Dallas boardrooms and how the administration was involved in the continued abuse even after the first sanctions hit them.  None of the administrators stood up to these donor prospects and told them what they didn't want to hear.

    In the end, I think it would require a major shift in a lot of administrators "understanding" of what is in the short-term and long-term interests of the university.  Sure, one may lose a few big donors if one scaled back the football or the entire athletics program, but not only would it be more than covered in cost saving.  Moreover, the university may discover that such a move might facilitate a few wealthy prospects to give a substantial major gift, who would otherwise not given such a gift.

    A little off topic, but one of the interesting pieces of shared wisdom by the Harvard presenter was that most of the very wealthy folks donate (and we're talking those who whip out the checkbook and hand over 6 and 7 figure donations in one shot) to their universities because they want to be "philanthropic," but they want to support those who they consider to be are part of their (economic) community, rather than those "down below." 

    I remember an episode of the West Wing covering this topic.  Press Secretary CJ Craig was especially peeved that each position was covered four deep.  She asked why the thrid-string (or whatever it is) Left Tight End also be the Right Tight End (sorry if the terms are wrong; Garp is my main frame of reference.)  She also asked if it weren't a matter of concern that after every other play, stretchers were brought onto the field.  ;o)

    Football at colleges like Nebraska may be more self-supporting since every seat in the 90,000+ stadium is always filled, and tickets cost a lot.  Our son paid a huindred bucks each for two online.  (I may have tried not to call him an idiot...I forget.)

    I loathe the sport, and fully endorsed the students at our local high school who wanted soccer instead by an overwhelmong majority.  Nope, the administration said, parents and grandparents love football.  They can barely make a team with the few who go out for it; they  might have to allow some girls to play one day.  ;o0

    Great article. There are two other problems with college sports I always read about:

    1 - Those in other sports are peeved at football & basketball getting the lion's share of sports cash.

    2 - Other sports have been cut back or eliminated under the banner of meeting Title IX. It boggles my mind that some 60 or 70 college swim programs have been eliminated, given that swimming is a natural coed sport. Title IX has become a conservative bete-noire, but I think it is an excuse to cut costs wherever they can be cut.

    Is college football at University of California Berkeley - Cal. - next to be defunded by Chancellor Birgeneau. Examine Chancellor Birgeneau's record on student sports.

    When UC Berkeley recently announced its elimination of baseball, men’s, women’s gymnastics, women’s lacrosse teams and its defunding of the national-champion men’s rugby team, the chancellor sighed, “Sorry, but this was necessary!”

    But was it?  Yes, the university is in dire financial straits. Yet $3 million was somehow found by Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau to pay the Bain consulting firm to uncover waste, inefficiencies in UC Berkeley (Cal), despite the fact that a prominent East Coast university was accomplishing the same thing without expensive consultants.  

    Essentially, the process requires collecting, analyzing information from faculty, staff.  Apparently, Cal senior management believe that the faculty, staff of their world-class university lacks the cognitive ability, integrity, energy to identify millions in savings.  If consultants are necessary, the reason is clear:  the chancellor has lost credibility with the people who provided the information to the consultants.  Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau has reigned for eight years, during which time the inefficiencies proliferated to $150 million.  Even as Bain’s recommendations are implemented (‘They told me to do it’, Birgeneau), credibility, trust, problems remain. 

    Bain is interviewing faculty, staff, senior management and academic senate leaders to identify $150 million in inefficiencies, most of which could have been found internally. One easy-to-identify problem, for example, was wasteful procurement practices such as failing to secure bulk discounts on printers.  But Birgeneau apparently has no concept of savings:  even in procuring a consulting firm he failed to receive proposals from other firms.

    Students, staff, faculty, California Legislators are the victims of his incompetent decisions.   Now that sports teams are feeling the pinch, perhaps the California Alumni, benefactors, donors, will demand to know why Birgeneau is raking in $500,000 a year while abdicating his work responsibilities.

    Let there be light. University of California Berkeley (Cal) ranking drops.  In 2004, for example, the London-based Times Higher Education ranked Cal the second leading research university in the world, just behind Harvard; in 2009 that ranking had tumbled to 39th place.

    The author, who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way the senior management operates.

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