There is no rule that a college must have a football team. Academia, in fact, squirms over the sort of priorities that moved Oklahoma University president George Cross, while seeking funds from the state legislature in 1951, to say the he “would like to build a university of which the football team can be proud.”
Still, the discontinuation of football at Hofstra on Dec. 3, beyond disrupting the lives of 11 coaches and 84 team members, was an event clearly deviating from the normal order in American life. For all of the university’s 73 years, Hofstra had fielded a football team, a practice so ingrained in perceptions of the U.S. college experience.
“There’s something about football,” said Michael D’Innocenzo, the Hofstra history professor who for years served as the school’s faculty athletic representative to the NCAA. “The tradition of football, the kind of the masculinity ritual of football.
“There has been a masculinity rite — r-i-t-e — for fans and players, and a masculinity right — r-i-g-h-t — for players to play. But to quote Bob Dylan, ‘The times they are a’changin.’ And one of the things that has changed is there’s not so much macho dominance about sports these days.”
Since the turn of the 21st Century, 26 colleges have dropped football, nationwide. (A handful of others, almost exclusively in the South, have added teams.) Scores of others either have existed without football for decades — Adelphi did away with the sport in 1953, NYU in 1952 — or never fielded a team at all.
“Certainly you can have a college without football; many institutions do,” said Canisius athletic director Bill Maher, whose Buffalo-based school disbanded its team in 2002. “For an institution that loses it, it’s a very difficult and very upsetting situation for the alumni and for the players.” Maher should know; he played football at Canisius in the 1980s.
“I was not employed by Canisius at the time [the sport was discontinued], but there was disappointment, of course,” he said. “Anger. The opportunity for other young men to have the same experience I had was no longer. Any time you stop doing anything you’ve always done, you take away a piece of history, you take away the chance to make more of that history. But it’s no different than eliminating an academic program, and those experiences can be filled by other things at the institution.”
At LaSalle University in Philadelphia, dropping football two years ago triggered “a sort of lament,” said athletic director Tom Brennan. “But football didn’t have the same history here, or tradition. After three, four years, there are new students; life goes on without a lot of disruption or conversation. We’re a basketball school. Now our homecoming is basketball.”
The immutable autumn scene of a college weekend — so available in televised games from other parts of the nation — of massive football crowds, precision marching bands, cheerleaders and passionate alumni, has not been the reality in the New York metropolitan area for a couple of generations.
“Football brings a lot to a college campus,” said Iona College athletic director Patrick Lyons, “especially when you talk about the real high level. What’s better than a fall Saturday, with 80,000 screaming people rallying around their team?” But Iona, faced with a dwindling league of Division III schools that drew few spectators and almost no income, pulled the plug on football last year.
“It’s not just football,” Lyons said. “it’s about sustainability, of schools examining what they do — and is it what we should be doing? It could involve dropping anything: Music, art, anything.”
To generalize that football’s place in the college culture is indispensable fails to take in what Brennan — who has worked at Syracuse, San Jose State and the University of New Mexico — has experienced as profound “regional, demographic and funding differences.” Plus, in some regions, “football has religious characteristics, too.”
At Hofstra, reminded D’Innocenzo, who has taught at the school since 1960, local rivalries long ago disappeared and the vast majority of Hofstra students no longer attend games, contributing to a growing lack of involvement in football by younger Hofstra alumni.
“That’s not all bad,” D’Innocenzo said. “There is a loss for people involved; that shouldn’t be denied. For players and coaches, there’s a special camaraderie that’s one of the beauties of sports.
“But that can be accomplished in other sports that are less expensive and less dangerous. And young people have become much more worldly and sophisticated beyond sports. Absorption in sports is a sign of arrested adolescent development. I think we’re getting a better balance now, and the decline of football is a sign of that.”