Wisely dropping football, Hofstra can focus on academics

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Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley,has written four books on college sports and life, including "Beer & Circus: How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education."

'Where have you gone, Wayne Chrebet?" No doubt, Hofstra's football fans, in defense of the program, have invoked the name of the former New York Jets receiver as well as the handful of other Hofstra players who made it to the NFL. However these athletes are the exception that proves the rule: Lower-level college football programs are fated to always lose money - it costs Hofstra $4.5 million a year - and can never break out of this red-ink cycle. Thus an outside observer has to ask the Hofstra fans: Is it worth preserving a $4.5-million white elephant in order to produce the very occasional player like Chrebet?

Obviously, from a rational dollars-and-cents point of view, the answer is "no," and the Hofstra administration acted wisely when it decided to drop football. Lower-level football programs are light years away from substantial revenue: Programs like Hofstra's are shut out of all the major TV contracts; they rarely can put many paying customers in the stands. For them, money-generating skyboxes are a total fantasy, and their teams can never go to a big-money bowl game. (Ironically, by the way, the vast majority of top-tier athletic departments with football teams that generate revenue from all those sources also, according to the NCAA, lose money, because their ever-escalating annual expenses always surpass their total revenues.)

The context of the Hofstra decision is the current economic crisis in American higher education. Even during the flush years of this decade, many schools were rattling the tin cup because of ever rising costs and stagnant revenue. But the stock market plunge of 2008 and the recession of that year and this one have severely damaged university endowments as well as the generosity - really, the ability to donate - of alumni and other university patrons.

Hofstra, like almost every American college and university, has had to drop academic departments, faculty and staff. In its statement announcing the demise of the team, Hofstra said that the money saved would be "redirected to fund new faculty . . . academic programs and need-based scholarships." Probably the school needs more than $4.5 million to shore up these academic areas, but this money is a good first step.

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Other schools at Hofstra's athletic level have started to make similar decisions. Northeastern in Boston, in Hofstra's sports conference, just dropped its football program, and other schools are contemplating the same move. Two examples of schools like Hofstra that succeeded with this move are Santa Clara University and St. Mary's University, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and both with storied football traditions as well as a great rivalry between them. In its history, Santa Clara's football team won Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl games, and St. Mary's played top opponents, including in the Cotton and other major bowls. But, as at Hofstra, the administrators of these schools realized that their football programs were fated to lose enormous and ever-increasing amounts of money. And they made their decisions in 1992 (Santa Clara) and 2003 (St. Mary's), when times were flush.

The results of these schools dropping football should cheer up Hofstra students and alums. St. Mary's put a greater emphasis on its men's basketball team and saw it go to a number of NCAA basketball tournaments, and Santa Clara promoted its already strong soccer teams and cheered for their successes. These teams generated as much - in fact, more - positive media attention for their schools than had the final mediocre football teams. For example, Santa Clara's women's soccer team was the American athletic program in the film "Bend It Like Beckham."

Students at these schools easily focused their sports enthusiasm on the basketball and soccer squads - winning helped - and, by all reports, they drank as much beer at the parties before and after the games as they did when the football teams played. Thus, school spirit and collegiate life lived on. Moreover, the amount of money alumni and others donated to the schools remained unchanged - contrary to the doomsayers who had predicted a precipitous decline in alumni giving if the schools dropped football.

Most important of all, Santa Clara and St. Mary's saved a great deal of money from the demise of their football programs and were able to put some into academic departments and some into other intercollegiate athletic teams, as well as intramural sports.

I have researched college sports for almost 30 years and I am frequently asked why colleges and universities at all levels - from below Hofstra's to the pinnacle of the Bowl Championship Series - tolerate the huge financial losses that their athletic departments generate every year. The best answer that I can give is that intercollegiate athletics is the most dysfunctional business in America and that its supporters are deeply irrational - willfully ignoring or rationalizing away the dark side of college sports, including the oceans of red ink.

I applaud the Hofstra administrators for making a rational decision. I'm sure that they have heard and will hear more criticism from the supporters of the football program, but they have taken a major step toward sanity in an often mad college-sports universe.

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