Some schools make a tough call: Drop football

Lane Oatey thought the Swarthmore College football team was going to be good this season.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania school revived its floundering program by bringing in a new head coach. Sure enough, the team started winning.

But there will be no touchdowns this year. Despite protest from players and parents, the school cut its football program in December.

"If anyone was going to be cut, we didn't think it would probably be us," says Mr. Oatey, a sophomore fullback. "We figured we'd done our part [by winning]," he says.

The school wanted to reduce the proportion of recruited athletes from 30 percent of the student body to 15 or 10 percent. And when it acted, Swarthmore joined about 20 other schools that made the same call in the 1990s.

Their reasons vary widely. Some face budget demands for other activities. Others often need to equalize men's and women's sports. Still others hope to shift school culture in a different direction.

James Shulman, co-author with former Princeton President William Bowen of "The Game of Life: College Sports and Education Values," says putting a premium on strong sports teams - often by bending academic requirements to admit athletes - has a significant impact on campus culture.

"Athletes come to schools saying they want different things from college," he says, noting that the pressures for strong sports affect small and large schools alike. "Then they go on to live together, to reinforce each others' values, to perform less well than would have been predicted in their academic work." The phenomenon "ends up affecting classroom discussions and campus ethos," he says.

At Swarthmore, student diversity was the issue. With only about 1,400 students, dedicating 50 slots to football players made it hard to support a variety of student interests.

"The college is trying to do an awful lot with a very small number of students," says Bob Williams, Swarthmore's athletic director, noting that the college fields 24 other athletic teams. "We were just limping along with a number of programs."

Players saw it differently. "We felt betrayed," Oatey says, in part because the decision was made behind closed doors.

Ken Clark, a sophomore who came in large part to play football, argues that the team contributed to the diversity of the academically oriented student body.

But to Alfred Bloom, Swarthmore's president, the school's admissions slots are "our most precious resource." Keeping men's football - and wrestling and badminton, which were also cancelled - would have meant allocating up to 30 percent of a class to athletes. Dropping football, he says, "was a vote to protect the academic center of the institution."

In many cases, finances drive the decision. Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., jettisoned its program in 1992 while starting a capital campaign directed at buildings, the endowment, and salaries.

Robert Duvall, president of the university at the time, remembers the game during which it hit him that football no longer fit into the fabric of the school. "There was a series of about three injuries of our guys who were just overwhelmed by this team. [One] student had to be airlifted out," Mr. Duvall says. "I just was struck by the question, 'Why are we doing this?' "

The school was spending $200,000 a year on the team. Then the head coach asked for $50,000 more to bolster the team after a winless 1991 season. The softball team, meanwhile, had to hold bake sales to get to the national playoffs.

After gaining faculty support and holding hearings with students, Duvall disbanded the team. "It was very divided," Duvall says. "Students thought, 'We won't get any real men to enroll. What kind of college doesn't have a football program?' Part of college is going out on an autumn afternoon and cheering on the team."

But "all too often, intercollegiate athletics don't have much to do with developing sound minds and sound bodies," he says.

In the end, Pacific wasn't hurt, Duvall says. Enrollment did not decline, the admissions profile went steadily up, and the capital campaign was successful.

But when schools drop a traditional sport, "the culture really changes, and you feel that in the fall," says Don Batie, the athletic director at Chico State in California, which dropped football in 1997.

The National Organization for Women successfully sued the California State University system in 1993, saying it violated Title IX of the 1972 Education Act by not providing equal opportunities for male and female athletes. Since then, Sonoma State, Chico State, Fullerton, and Hayward have dropped football. Financing additional women's sports along with football was too burdensome for some schools.

Sonoma State, which was spending $320,000 a year on football and only bringing in $30,000, cut it in 1997.

"Campuses often look to football as an important part of campus life, and we are missing that," says Rand Link, vice president of student affairs. On the other hand, Sonoma led the nation two years ago in attendance for Division II women's soccer, and the team continues to do well.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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