In its most-recent game, the University of Houston
football team notched its sixth loss. Not only does this fare poorly against its win column — three victories against mostly risible rivals — it also fares poorly against the exorbitant salary of Coach Dana Holgorsen. Signed last year to a five-year, $20-million contract, Holgorsen was hired to create a football powerhouse, one that would fill the university’s largely empty stadium that Houston built a few years ago to the tune of $125 million. Those 40,000 seats will remain sparsely filled for the rest of the season.
Did Houston’s leadership wake up on Sunday morning with buyer’s remorse? Only they, of course, can answer that question. But this story does raise other and more urgent questions about the colossal role played by football programs at state universities. Is the insatiable appetite of these behemoths luring universities from their traditional duty, which is not to win games but to educate students? By creating football programs too big to fail, have universities created academic programs too small to succeed?
In Billion-Dollar Ball
, his blistering account of the university-athletic complex, Gilbert M. Gaul dissects the motivations of large and midsize state universities that invest dazzling sums of money to build successful football teams. In part, Gaul suggests, it is a case of "football envy
." Given the sheer size and financial sway of NCAA football — for the first time, in 2017, the organization’s total revenue justified its moniker as a "billion-dollar industry
" — such envy is explicable, perhaps even inevitable. But this does not mean it is reasonable.
Defenders of collegiate football play the "front porch
" card to justify the expense and prominence of football programs. There are few better ways, they claim, to attract prospective students and donors. Build the porch, in effect, and they will come.
They might have a point, though the porch metaphor is too quaint for the 21st century. In an age where the omnipresent electronic screen has become the arbiter of reality, what was once a game has become a spectacle, one that is endlessly looped and layered by the satellite, social, and traditional media. A football program has become less a porch than a perch in programming, one whose prominence depends on wins and losses.
Yet there is a problem with focusing on curbside appeal. Invest too much money in the porch and you might not have much left for the house just behind it. The likelihood of neglect is all the greater in an era where decreasing state support makes universities increasingly desperate to grow, or simply maintain, revenue streams. Blitzed by hostile legislators and hawkish regents, scrambling university presidents are turning to their football program as a kind of Hail Mary pass. And why wouldn’t they? In Texas alone, two universities — the University of Texas and Texas A&M — have each generated more than $200-million in annual revenue through their athletic programs. Along with a dozen other programs, including those at LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, and Notre Dame, they raked in well over $1 billion in 2017.
Those high-profile success stories notwithstanding, the brutal fact is that only an elite group of universities actually profit from their athletic programs. Yet many are nevertheless betting their futures on football not despite funding cuts imposed by their state legislatures but because of them. Rather than falling over one another for star scholars, universities do that for star coaches. Houston’s Holgorsen is not the only one to benefit from an astronomical pay raise; midlevel universities like Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic have also doubled the salaries of incoming coaches.
While the elite programs pay for themselves, most others seek new ways to nickel and dime students through a variety of fees, as well as shift institutional funds to keep the lights on and Jacuzzis whirling in their state-of-the-art training facilities. (Last year, student fees at Houston funneled more than $8 million into the athletic program, while the university coughed up $17 million more to keep the program afloat. And yet, plans for a new office building for the football staff are on the drawing board.) These administrators take for gospel the observation made by a former athletic director at Texas: "Football is the train. You ride it for all it’s worth." For most colleges, though, this particular train leads not to dazzling riches but dizzying debt. Even Michigan’s program, despite its glorious history and devoted fans, is teetering on the edge of potentially catastrophic debt.
Nevertheless, dozens of state universities continue to tax students and transfer funds in order to keep the gridirons green. As for the groves of academe, they are less green. What might this mean for the university’s ability to educate its students? When Tilman Fertitta, chairman of Houston’s Board of Regents, was asked if the athletic program’s $100-million debt harmed the university’s academic activities, he replied, "Not at all." Of course, adjuncts without health benefits, academic coordinators without classrooms, and department chairs without tenure lines might disagree.
So, too, might students without an inkling of how to write. Universities have long emphasized that a core task is to teach the entwined skills of clear writing and critical thinking. It is a laudable goal; it is a vital goal; it is a goal that merits the necessary resources. Yet the resources often are lacking. Conversations with colleagues at several universities reveal that their administrations talk the talk but rarely walk the walk when it comes to the funding of writing programs.
At my own institution, there is a rightly well-regarded Writing Center dedicated to this very task. But a glimpse of contrasting numbers reflects our actual priorities. With about 85 active players and 31 full-time coaches, assistant coaches, and trainers, the student-teacher ratio for our football team is about 2.5 to 1. Over at the Writing Center, there is a staff of five, plus 25 "consultants" — part-time tutors who are either still students or recent graduates. They and the full-time staff have a potential clientele of more than 40,000 students, or one instructor for every 1,300 students. The math is as simple as its lesson: Our future lies with an educated citizenry, not an entertained one