11/26/2009 12:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Football or Education?

For the last ten years, I have begun my Sports Law course at Northeastern University School of Law with an imagined email from the University president. He would ask for my advice as to whether the institution should make the investment to place Northeastern football on a par with Boston College, the only school in the Boston area which commands national attention. Northeastern would, of course, have to build a new on-campus stadium and devote millions of dollars to the project. It could be done, as the University of Connecticut has shown recently.
Although a majority of the students in my Sports Law class had played college athletics, some at the Bowl Championship Series level, most advised against the move to the "Big Time." This, of course, was not a random survey. The students were, for the most part, big fans of everything "sport." They were also personally familiar with the physical and educational sacrifices involved in playing sports at the pre-professional level.
We would talk about the benefits of the Big Time game - the recognition it could bring to what used to be a large commuter school on Huntington Avenue, but had become a major academic player in recent years -- what high school advisors term a "hot school." Northeastern had other sports, in particular hockey and basketball. To my surprise, my students seemed cool to the idea of making the school into a football factory. They understood that the costs outweighed the potential benefits.
After 35 years as an academic, I still have trouble understanding what football is doing at colleges. It certainly has nothing to do with the educational program. If anything, it detracts from that program and drains limited financial resources. It is certainly fun to go to a college football game, and I rarely missed one at Cornell during my undergraduate years in Ithaca. For many people in this country, public and large private universities have become the setting for football and basketball entertainment.
An active sports program at college is a valuable adjunct to a rigorous educational program. A successful athletic program in a major sport boosts student morale. Students proudly wear their college paraphernalia. They will remember their alma maters fondly for years to come. Even if they never saw football players in class, they can identify with their successes on the field. That is valuable asset in a college and alumni community.
Yet for every school that benefits in this way, there are many more that are disappointed by the Big Time game. For every marginally successful team, there is a marginally unsuccessful one. A school put on NCAA probation for rule violations can be a gloomy place, and virtually every school experiences that disaster at one time or another. The thrill of victory is always followed by the agony of defeat.
Notwithstanding my mythical annual advice to the president that Northeastern should not move up to BC level, it came as a shock this week to receive the news that the University has decided to abolish its football program after more than seven decades. Football was costing the University three million dollars a year. During a time of austerity across higher education, no institution can afford this type of financial drain. Northeastern had done well in this difficult economy by careful planning and pruning. The football decision seems like the next best step. (It is fortunate that Boston University, a crosstown academic and hockey rival, had abolished its football program more than a decade ago, thus providing a local precedent for the move.) The public response to the University's announcement has been underwhelming. No one seemed to care.
If a football powerhouse decided to eliminate its football program, the public and political outcry would be deafening. Try to think of Ohio State, LSU, or Florida without football. These are terrific public universities, but public support for their academic programs is a direct product of their pigskin commitment. In 1939, the University of Chicago - a founding school of the Big Ten Conference, a perennial national football power and the home of Amos Alonzo Stagg - abolished the sport four years after UC senior Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy. The school's president, Robert Hutchins, responded to angry questions from alumni about what could possibly take the place of football with a single word: "education."
It is true that some truly distinguished private schools, like Stanford University, are able to achieve both academic and athletic success, but in a time of shrinking endowments some difficult decisions may have to be made. Northeastern has done that, and it will continue to prosper as a result.