In an article published in the December 6, 2015 edition of The Birmingham (AL) News, I praised the University of Alabama – Birmingham’s board and leadership team for recognizing the fact that competitive and financial realities change and for responding to those changes by discontinuing their football program. I wrote that schools that refuse to recognize those changing realities risk damaging their ability to fully meet their educational missions. And that continuing to expect academic institutions to fall on a financial sword for athletics in the name of alumni ego and a national profile based on sports was irresponsible. I added that UAB leaders should be commended for providing something that has long been sorely lacking in the landscape of American higher education. Specifically, courage, leadership, common sense and educational vision as it applies to big-time college athletics. But after months of protests and public discussion, UAB announced that it will reinstate its football program for the 2016 season.
So much for UAB stepping up to provide much needed national educational leadership.
While UAB may have regained its football program, it has lost what could have been a historic opportunity to stand out as a true national leader as it applies to the relationship between big-time football and educational mission. The long-term educational return on investment associated with being an institution that clearly and emphatically stood firm, in the face of great resistance, for academic integrity, educational priorities and institutional responsibility would have been very powerful. Certainly far greater than the educational ROI of a few wins in football.
Regardless, in the end, this decision is UAB’s to make. While it is perfectly understandable the UAB community to celebrate this news, they should also fully recognize that the issues that lead to the initial decision are not going to go away. The fact is, the trends and challenges that lead to the initial decision are not only going to continue, but they will become more pronounced in the years ahead.
Specifically, expectations of universities to provide an education worthy of the 21St Century are going to continue to rise. This, against a backdrop of declining funding, decreasing government support, increasing tuition, rising student debt and growing public cynicism regarding the value of a college degree. In such an environment, spending an enormous amount of time, effort, energy and resources on a football program will be harder to justify. Other than providing compelling entertainment, how exactly does sponsoring, at great expense, an FBS football team contribute to an institution’s ability to meet the rising expectations of providing students a world-class education?
Second, the cost associated with sponsoring football at the FBS level will continue to significantly outpace not only our national economy’s rate of inflation, but higher education’s rate of inflation as well. On top of that, the NCAA’s recent approval of measures to give more autonomy to the five powerhouse conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12), to allow them to spend even more on athletics will undoubtedly significantly increase the competitive distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. And make no mistake, UAB is clearly a “have not” in the FBS universe. How exactly is that a strategic and educationally sound path forward?
Finally, there is a moral issue that simply will not go away. There is going to come a point in time where the evidence of the debilitating effects of football participation become so clear and the physical costs to young people so great that public perception of schools that are willing to “sacrifice” students in the name of athletic glory and financial gain may shift. In short, the public may come to wonder how an educational institution can not simply sponsor, but celebrate, an activity that has such a strong possibility of inflicting serious physical damage for public entertainment and branding purposes. The hypocrisy of supposedly being about the education of young people while continuing to invest significant amounts of money, time, effort and emotion in an activity that scrambles their brains simply for public entertainment will be plain for all to see. How exactly does that advance an institution of higher education’s mission?
Again, this is a decision for the UAB community. But be clear. The forces that lead to the decision in the first place are not going to disappear.
So all of you who are raising the millions of dollars needed to pull UAB football up off the mat, enjoy the moment. But don’t enjoy it for too long. You need to get back to work raising even more money and writing even bigger checks to keep it all afloat.
Good luck with that.