Froma Harrop: College football haves, have-nots and dropouts
The University of Alabama’s football coach ruffled surprisingly few feathers up north when he dismissively contrasted the game played by the University of Rhode Island with his school’s.
“When they play games — you know, I think up there when Rhode Island plays whoever they play — they have a picnic after the game,” Nick Saban, coach for the legendary Crimson Tide, said. “That doesn’t happen around here. We got 100,000 people. We got an SEC championship game. We’re trying to get into the playoffs. But we all have the same rules.”
Some might quibble with the “same rules” part, but few would argue that Bama and URI football belong in the same breath.
Saban was answering a question about the haves and have-nots in college football. Rhode Islanders know they are have-nots. The URI Rams have put in some pretty dismal performances, even against the modest teams in their league.
The bigger question at places like URI is: Why are we even doing this? Northeastern, Boston University and Hofstra have all dropped football, putting their money in sports that cost less and in which they do better.
Other schools with maniacal football cultures, such as Michigan and Nebraska, are unlikely to do away with their programs, whatever the scores. But even some people there wonder whether football is interfering with the academic missions of the universities whose names they bear.
Only a few schools actually make money off football. New TV deals are showering money on the super teams but squeezing the also-runs. Some glamorous teams also profit from selling media rights and making apparel deals with the likes of Nike. The others do not.
Alabama is in a class by itself, dwarfing the competition by almost every measure. Its football program costs a massive $51 million a year but brings in an equally impressive $97 million in revenues. And most agree that its football greatness serves as a significant draw for students and donors.
But even there, some eyebrows rise at the emphasis placed on football at an institution of higher learning. Saban will have been paid over $11 million this year. Though a football coach’s raking in more than the university president is not news, it’s remarkable that three of Saban’s coaching assistants also make more, hundreds of thousands more. President Stuart Bell’s compensation totals $755,000.
Alabama’s fabled coach Bear Bryant, who retired in 1982, was sensitive to the message football prominence sent to the rest of the school. He insisted on making at least $1 less than the university president. Those brakes are clearly off.
Except for the star teams, college football is losing audience. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton built a $70 million stadium in 2011. In recent times, its seats have been 80 percent empty.
URI football hasn’t had a winning season since 2001. Its 6,500-seat stadium ranks with New Hampshire’s as the smallest in the Colonial Athletic Association.
As a sportswriter at The Providence Journal gently noted, Rhode Island is “a place where college football isn’t exactly king.”
Big-time college football, meanwhile, faces its own challenges. Players are challenging a system that pays millions to the coaches and schools while treating them as amateurs. Scholarships are a relative pittance. The humorist Will Rogers once suggested giving student-athletes a fair take at the gates, and then they could pay for their own tuition.
Brain injuries caused by the sport have also taken some of the luster off the game for some fans and many mothers.
Instead of pretending that college football is one big family, perhaps we should let the hotshot programs operate as big businesses. Others might choose to skip the game altogether and just do the picnic.