What really is an exhilarating experience - the color, sounds and emotion of big-time college football - makes the dissolution of Hofstra's team earlier this month feel, on its surface, wrongheaded and mean-spirited. How could a school, which for all of its 73 years has participated in this autumn rite that seems as much a part of college life as questing, meandering youth itself, pull the plug on such an American institution?
Football has been so tied to college identity that, generations ago, the humorist Will Rogers proclaimed successful colleges to be the ones that "will start laying plans for a new stadium; unsuccessful ones will start hunting a new coach." In the general consciousness, Notre Dame forever has been a football team. Oklahoma University's president once said he wished to have a "university of which the football team can be proud." Before the Ivy League came to be seen as a collection of pointy-headed intellectuals, its members - the Yales and Harvards and Princetons - were the nation's original football factories.
"Does college pay?" went another sly Rogers line. "They do if you are good open-field runner."
So ingrained is the idea of colleges fielding football teams that schools without them regularly activate for their creation. Just this fall, two blogs at Adelphi University - which dropped football in 1953 - have pointed to "evidence that Adelphi needs a football team," referencing a campus poll that found 93 percent of Adelphi students "felt football would add prestige to the university, and that they were in favor of adding a program. ... "
At NYU, which hasn't played football since 1952, members of the student newspaper decided in 2000 that having a football team again might be a way to create a buzz on campus - so they invented one. They published weekly stories on the "team's" undefeated exploits, with a made-up coach, Jack Wizzenhunt, imaginary quarterback, Joel Luber, and fictional star tailback, Ahmed El Khaloul. By season's end, after receiving calls about buying tickets and getting directions to the team's playing field, the paper acknowledged its hoax.
Which, in fact, has been missed entirely by most students.
What the Adelphi and NYU daydreams of football glory failed to take into consideration - as well as laments over Hofstra's decision - were the realities of gridiron possibilities. Not to mention the ambiguities, dilemmas and contradictions of big-time college football.
A report by the NCAA watchdog Knight Commission, released in late October, found that, even at the highest level (the so-called Football Bowl Subdivision), 80 percent of colleges playing football are losing money - at an average loss of $10 million per school. Below that group - where Hofstra existed in the Football Championship Subdivision, with 63 scholarships per school and none of the substantial TV rights money the big guys get - any feel-good school spirit is vastly outweighed by financial pain.
The clear evidence of a widening gap between the haves and have-nots has become staggering: While the University of Texas, for instance, works with a $125 million annual athletic budget, and enormous return on its investment, Hofstra's $4.5 million for football was all payout, given the almost nonexistent spectator and student interest. An argument, voiced in some corners, that if Harvard could continue to field a football team on the FCS level, so should Hofstra, blithely overlooked the fact that Harvard has a $29 billion endowment and can afford to do just about anything it wants.
The warping effect of football excitement - so obvious in Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC televised events - hardly addresses the sport's waning support system even in such historic environments as the Ivy League. Eleven years since Princeton opened a smaller, refurbished stadium of 20,000, its largest crowd in 2009 was under 11,000. Yale, which set the trend of enormous football showplaces when its bowl opened in 1914 - capable of seating almost 80,000 - had only 3,879 people rattling around in the downsized (64,000) stadium for its game against Lafayette this season and averaged under 20,000 for every game except Harvard (52,692).
If Hofstra were realizing the entertainment value and attendant social benefits of, say, a Penn State or Michigan or Nebraska - or even my alma mater, Missouri - gassing the football team would be difficult to defend, even in these hard economic times. But if you hold a football game and almost nobody comes, does it exist in the first place?