Forty percent of Division I football programs lose money, but the rich are prospering, thanks to corporate branding of stadiums and bowl games, contracts with soft drink and athletic shoe companies, marketing of team logo merchandise, luxury suites, seat licenses for the privilege of buying seats and, most important, television.
There is now a 15-year, $3 billion television contract between the Southeastern Conference, which has six of the nation's 15 largest athletic budgets, and CBS and ESPN. This will give each of the 12 SEC athletic departments about $17 million a year, comparable to revenue from a major bowl game.
Most of the money that flows into big-time football programs from individuals and corporations is tax deductible for the spenders, and the universities' athletic programs are not taxed. Congress, however ravenous for revenues, will not dare to change this.
NCAA pressure on universities to improve athletes' graduation rates perversely encourages suspicious concentrations of athletes in particular majors. In a recent year, 41 percent of Texas football players were majoring in Youth and Community Services, compared to 0.2 percent of all students; 78.4 percent of Michigan's were in General Studies, compared to 1.6 percent of all students there.
Evidence that football serves larger university interests (more and better student applications, alumni and government support) is elusive, but belief in football as an institution-building enterprise is not new: When the University of Chicago opened in 1892, it hired a former Yale All-American, Amos Alonzo Stagg, at a full professor's salary to coach the team. Football is one reason Notre Dame, rather than a rival, became the premier Catholic university in the 1920s and '30s.
Football, says Oriard, is "the chief activity through which alumni remain attached to their university," which matters more as states' budgets contract. Furthermore, Oriard says football provides large universities "meaningful ritual" and a sense of community "whose social benefit is hard to measure but nonetheless is real and powerful."
If boosters stop donating to football, they will not start donating to classics departments. The late Bear Bryant, Alabama's coach, correctly said, "It's kind of hard to rally 'round a math class." So a droll University of Oklahoma president was not quite kidding when he said, "We're trying to build a university our football team can be proud of." The wit who said football has about as much to do with education as bullfighting has to do with agriculture was more amusing than accurate.