The most unpopular man in Birmingham, Alabama, these days is Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Earlier this month, Watts announced that the school was going to eliminate its football team. You can just imagine what happened next.
When Watts told the team that this would be their last season, one player, Tristan Henderson, angrily challenged him in a video that quickly went viral. Later, several hundred supporters chanted and cheered for the coach, and heckled and chased Watts and his police escort, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com.
Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, described Watts’ decision as “unfortunate.” A group of important donors wrote a letter to the chancellor of the Alabama university system, calling for an investigation into Watts’ decision. Another big supporter, a Birmingham restaurateur, canceled his $45,000 sponsorship of a television network that aired UAB games and ended the use of his restaurant as the locale for the basketball coach’s weekly radio show.
“This is so tragic,” he told a reporter. “It’s like a death.”
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Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)
“Our athletic budget is $30 million,” he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
“We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he said. Then he added, “This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.”
Ah, yes, the changing landscape. Let me explain. For the last year or more, the big boys in college athletics — the 64 schools that make up the top five conferences, plus Notre Dame — have been agitating for more freedom to make their own rules. They want, for instance, to be able to give their athletes a stipend that goes beyond a scholarship and more fully reflects the “full cost of attendance.” And through their conference commissioners, the power schools issued a series of veiled threats that if they didn’t get more autonomy, they just might bolt from the NCAA.
Not surprisingly, they got their autonomy. The additional benefits will probably cost each of these schools several million additional dollars per year. But universities like Michigan and Auburn and Notre Dame can afford it. It’s the UAB’s of the world — the so-called mid-majors — that have to decide whether to match the benefits the big schools are giving to athletes or go in another direction.
I have no problem with the power schools giving athletes more benefits; indeed, I’m in favor of it. But what I always thought would happen when this day came — when the financial difference between the power schools and everybody else became overwhelming — is that the smaller schools in Division 1 would be forced to rethink their priorities, as UAB has. Maybe not drop football altogether, but de-emphasize it so that the tail finally stops wagging the dog.
But so far, at least, that is not turning out to be the case. At a college sports conference last week in New York, nobody gave UAB any credit for pulling out of football. On the contrary: most of the athletic directors in the room were adamant that they would pay whatever they had to pay to keep pace with the big boys.
When you ask people why it is so important, you get similar responses: a good football team means more applications; it helps generate donations; it is something the community can rally around.
Yet schools that have dropped football have lived to tell the tale. In 1995, the University of the Pacific dropped football — the last major school to do so before UAB.
“Since then, their enrollment has actually gone up,” emailed David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University.
“Football,” he added, “doesn’t define a university.” Unfortunately, for too many schools, it does.
© 2014 New York Times