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Why Do Colleges Spend Millions On Football, Our Commentator Asks


College football season begins this weekend. It's that time. Alabama plays USC. Clemson plays Auburn. LSU plays Wisconsin. Big football programs - programs that know what they're after - bowl games, championships. Commentator John U. Bacon says other schools face a question this time of year - what's the point?

JOHN U. BACON, BYLINE: Why do so many colleges spend millions of dollars to compete in big-time football? Well, for some programs, like Texas, Tennessee and Michigan, it's just good business. They can earn more than $100 million a year for their schools, much of that from TV revenue. A successful program can also build community, attract students and donations. Some schools, like Notre Dame, Michigan State and Penn State, have even leveraged their football income to become academic powerhouses.

But what if your football program isn't doing any of these things and is actually losing games and money? That's the question dozens of schools, like Eastern Michigan University, are facing. In 43 seasons, the EMU Eagles have taken home exactly one league title. They've not had a winning season since 1995. And under current coach Chris Creighton, they're 3-21. That's one problem. Here's another - according to faculty senate, last year, EMU's athletic department spent almost $34 million, most of that on football.

Eighty percent of that money came from the university's general fund - money that could be spent on labs, professors or scholarships. In contrast, Michigan and Michigan State get less than 1 percent of their athletic funds from the main university budget. For EMU, the result is that about 10 percent of in-state students' tuition goes to the athletic department, whether they care about it or not. And most EMU students, faculty and alumni do not care about their football team.

The Eagles draw fewer than 10,000 fans per game, the worst attendance in all of Division I. Of course, universities do lots of things that don't make money, like teaching Latin. But should playing Division I football be one of them? In the last decade, EMU's athletic department doubled staff salaries and added 21 new positions, compared to just 16 for the rest of the entire university. Most EMU students take out expensive loans, work their way through school or both.

And then there's the case of Ramone Williams. Before graduating from EMU this spring, he gained headlines when it was discovered he was homeless. Unable to afford tuition and pay rent, Williams slept in the library. And he's not the only homeless student at EMU.

Given that reality, how can this school justify spending $30 million on a football team almost nobody watches? EMU's regents have so far resisted growing pressure to drop or even downgrade the football program. Not so, the University of Idaho president, Chuck Staben, faced with the same problem this spring, he made the tough decision to downgrade their football program. It angered some alumni, but it will save the school millions of dollars. And President Staben's courageous call will benefit Idaho's future alumni for years to come.

INSKEEP: He's still in Division I - author and commentator John U. Bacon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.