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Hofstra football dies, and an athletic scholarship gets harder to find

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The already remote chance that all that money you spent on extra-special speed drills and creatine is going to get your kid a college athletic scholarship is growing ever more remote. That Hofstra University followed Northeastern’s recent lead in dropping football is not a case of individual schools making individual decisions. They are canaries in the toxic coalmine that is the bloated athletic department budget in an age of newfound collegiate austerity.

Hofstra, in its Dec. 3 announcement, said it came to the conclusion that the $4.5 million a year it spent on Football Championship Series (formerly known as Division I-AA) football could be better used to provide need-based scholarships to students or expand academic programs. Side note: the announcement came the day after the NCAA named Hofstra alum and former New York Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet as its official, inaugural ambassador to the FCS playoffs. Oops. Chrebet would do just as well to say he’s the ambassador from Freedonia, which, if I recall “Duck Soup” correctly, also was a little hard up for money.4049750020_dd3d24e73b

Hofstra was the second Colonial Athletic Association program in two weeks to drop football, following Northeastern, which said it did so for financial reasons. But I think the Boston school is actually responding to my call that everyone in the state of Massachusetts stop playing football because of the high knucklehead factor of its players, coaches and parents.

So why is Hofstra (and Northeastern) a canary in a coalmine? Because the pressure is on for colleges to cut costs, and the athletic department won’t be spared. In fact, it might be first to the firing squad, given that, as Murray Sperber pointed out nearly 20 years ago in his book College Sports Inc., almost every college athletic department, even the ones with the biggest football stadiums filled to capacity, loses money.

A little stroll around the Internet brings up a lot of examples to show why athletics is under such pressure.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the same organization whose studies inspired the NCAA to boost academic standards for athletes, in the fall put out a report calling the current state of athletic spending “unsustainable,” citing an arms race for facilities and big bucks for coaches. “Athletics are increasingly seen as occupying a position of privilege, which the recession has brought to a harsher spotlight,” Knight Commission Cochair R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University, said in U.S. News and World Report. “Athletics costs are growing three times faster than elsewhere at institutions.”

There’s little evidence to show students give a rat’s ass about whether their school has sports, particularly football, if they are not athletes themselves. The history of colleges that have dropped football is that most have gone on their merry way without any decline (unless you think Swarthmore has gone to shit since dropping football in 2000). The colleges that died were already in trouble before they cut football – that’s why they cut it.

Speaking of students not giving a rat’s ass, in 2007 East Tennessee State University students got to vote on whether they would support their $75 athletics fee rising to $350 so the school could bring back football, which was dropped in 2003. The students voted no, and football ain’t coming back.

Plenty of other universities are looking at cutting athletic programs. For example, the University of New Orleans, which does not have a football program and whose enrollment has not reached pre-Katrina levels, is considering a drop from Division I to nonscholarship Division III. That way, it can save a bundle on the $6-7 million it needs to spend to maintain Division I status, and wipe out a current $1.3 million athletic department deficit.

Why would that save so much money? The University of Central Arkansas, which is in progress of moving to full Division I status (including FCS football) by Sept. 30, 2010, estimates 81 percent of its athletic budget is scholarships, travel and coaches’ salaries. So it has to look at the other 19 percent of its budget to satisfy a state-mandated 2 percent budget cut.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Community College system just cut seven out of 22 sports, while Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is suggesting his state’s community colleges downsize or even eliminate sports – a $20 million savings. Another institution looking at cutting sports? Stanford. It has to cut $8 million from its athletics budget, which supports 35 states – more than any school but Ohio State.

Resentment also is growing over general fund money being used to support the athletic department. You might call the University of California-Berkeley academic senate sports-hating granola eaters because it recently voted 91-68 to end general fund subsidies to sports. But the athletic department didn’t help by, in a document meant to SUPPORT its case, noting $31.4 million in pre-2007 debt to the general fund had been forgiven, and that even after recent cuts in its subsidy, it still gets $6 million a year – but it’s working on getting better! Not exactly the message of sacrifice anyone wants to hear in a state where protests flared up because of massive tuition hikes and budget cuts because of the state of California’s fiscal woes.

When the University of Texas-San Antonio conducted a feasibility study on adding football, it noted that, apropos to Hofstra, having an FCS program would cost it millions of dollars per year that it would have no way of making up.  Its only hope for making money was to move to the former Division I-A, what we now call the Football Bowl Subdivision, and join a conference. (Thus, it could get some shared money when members go a bowl game. That’s why FBS schools aren’t fighting for a playoff – the current system guarantees more money spread among more colleges.) So Texas-San Antonio is making just that kind of plan, starting up football in 2011 under new coach Larry Coker, who won a national championship at the University of Miami.

Alas, as California, Stanford and others prove, even if you do spend the money to play at the highest levels, you probably won’t make any. So parents, you’re better off spending your time and energy persuading colleges to drop sports so they might have a few bucks to shave off of tuition or to send a little money your kid’s way to pay the outrageous price for books – like what Hofstra says it wants to do now that its football field is silent.