- - Wednesday, December 10, 2014


It takes strength, courage and resolve on the part of young men to play football. Sometimes it requires even more strength, courage and resolve on the part of college and university administrators not to play football.

That’s the lesson being taught, and maybe even learned, by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The university administration, led by the president, Ray Watts, decided to eliminate the football program rather than continue subsidizing it. UAB is the first Division 1 football program to feel the ax in two decades. Tulane University in New Orleans tried to do it a decade ago but could not resist powerful resistance from diehard fans.

The powers that be at UAB said the football team would have cost the school $49 million over the next five years, not including $22 million needed for improvements to football facilities, and certainly not including a proposed on-campus stadium that would have cost more than $100 million. Football is the state religion in Alabama, as in the surrounding states, and eliminating a football team is the supreme heresy.

“In order to invest at least another $49 million,” Mr. Watts said, “UAB would have to redirect funds away from other critical areas of importance, like education, research, patient care and student services, which are core to UAB’s mission.”

The university plays second banana to the University of Alabama and Auburn University in football prowess, money and sports page press clippings. Alabama and Auburn are perennial powerhouses in the Southeastern Conference, and the Blazers play in a second-tier conference.

But the university is anything but a second-tier university. With 18,000 students, UAB is the third-largest university in Alabama, and with its top-tier affiliated medical center, the school provides 1 in every 10 jobs in Birmingham and makes a $4.6 billion dollar annual impact on the region. Its campus, covering 83 blocks of downtown real estate, is locally known as “the campus that ate Birmingham.”

The Blazers just couldn’t survive as another football factory. The athletic department hemorrhages money. That kind of money has to come from somewhere. More often than not, that “somewhere” is the budgets of other university programs that Mr. Watts correctly believes are more important to the educational goals that must be the primary concern for any university. UAB’s athletics lose an astonishing $18 million a year. UAB isn’t alone in throwing millions of dollars a year at financially failing sports programs. Last year 33 public universities lost more money than UAB. Every one of them might learn something from UAB.

Rutgers University in New Jersey may underwrite the biggest boondoggle in college sports. The Scarlet Knights, newly installed in the prestigious Big Ten, required a $47 million bailout last year just to keep its athletics afloat.

Two of the four most heavily subsidized college athletic programs in America are in Virginia. Subsidizing sports at James Madison University and Old Dominion University combined costs $55.5 million every year. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas loses $36 million annually on athletics, and the University of Delaware drops more than $26 million annually.

Mr. Watts‘ decision to eliminate football at UAB is unpopular with many football fans in Alabama, but from this distance it seems to be the correct one. Often those entrusted with public money pour tax dollars into keeping frivolous public programs alive because they’re “for the kids,” they “bring the community together,” they “foster civic pride,” or, as with college football, it “promotes school pride.”

Perhaps. But that’s not good enough when the cost of those programs burdens taxpayers who can’t bear heavier burdens, and worse, takes money from programs that are — as hard as this may be to comprehend — more important than a football team.

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