The Long Bomb

It’s easy to make that connection, I suppose, if you look only at the numbers (women’s sports at the university generated less than a half million dollars in 2001, while the men earned more than $28 million). But if Robinson were to take that argument out of the gender arena, he’d have a hard time justifying a wrestling program that doesn’t come close to paying its own way. Besides, as Kane points out, there’s nothing in the law that says athletic departments must shut down wrestling teams—or any other non-revenue sport—to comply with Title IX. “It’s not about Title IX,” she says. “It’s about how football sucks up all the oxygen.”

Maturi, for his part, is almost apologetic when he explains how much he’s spending this fall to promote the football team. And though he says he expects every Gopher team to compete “at the highest level,” he allows that “nobody’s pressuring me to spend more money on the tennis team.”

But pressure of another sort may soon be on its way. Last year, partially in response to criticism by faculty and students, who were absorbing yet another in a series of hiring freezes and tuition hikes, university regents approved a moratorium on new construction of sports facilities. The move quieted some critics, who bristled at the $17 million the university had invested in the football program since 1997, but last month’s flurry of excitement over the prospect of raising $100 million or more for a new football stadium and the Board of Regents’ decision to drop the moratorium is likely to raise new questions about the university’s priorities. “There’s a real tension between the academic mission and big-time football,” says university political science professor Larry Jacobs. “It is very glaring from a faculty perspective to see very significant cuts in programs, increased class sizes, and erosion of services at the same time that you’re seeing huge sums put into the football program.”

And even if Maturi and company are able to convince critics that the investment in the stadium is worth the buzz it will create around the state, Jacobs says, the economics of college football provide no guarantee that it will pay off—for Glen Mason’s football team or for the rest of campus. “It’s like the Gordian knot,” he says. “To play major college football at the university level costs a huge amount, and the potential for making back what you invest is far from certain.”

From 1900 to 1920, the University of Chicago dominated Big Ten football. In 1939, they decisively and unceremoniously dropped football forever. (And three years later, Enrico Fermi built the world’s first manmade nuclear reactor underneath the football stadium itself.) Not coincidentally, their shift in values had a dramatic effect: They became an academic institution that suddenly competed with Harvard and Yale for the best students in the world. The story back then seems eerily familiar: a big drop in student attendance, increasing difficulty in competing with the larger state universities for the best players, a steady erosion in the win-loss column. Finally, after an 85-0 loss to Michigan, the university’s trustees voted to put the program out of its misery.

Curiously, the fall of the University of Chicago Maroons coincided with the rise of the Golden Gophers, who between 1934 and 1941 fielded some of the best college football teams of all time. The Gophers under coach Bernie Bierman won three consecutive national championships from 1934 to 1936 and another two in 1940 and 1941. But it would be another twenty years before the Gophers once again sat atop the national rankings, and they haven’t been heard from since.

Still, nobody’s buying my idea of letting the air out of the ball. Nobody wants to succumb to what seems to me to be a completely logical conclusion: that enough time has passed, enough approaches have been tried, and a return to the Gophers’ former dominance (or even some semblance of sustainable competitiveness) is simply not going to happen.

Jacobs calls such a path “unthinkable.” And Kane suggests it would be downright un-American: “We are going to have a football team at the University of Minnesota, but we don’t care if we’re mediocre? That is the antithesis to everything that we’re about.”

And yet Kane is not willing to pursue football excellence at all costs, either. Indeed, she’s convinced that there can be a sustainable future for the Gophers and the rest of major college football if only the industry was willing to do a little downsizing. Drop the number of players on a team from the ludicrous 103 that currently suit up for each game to a more reasonable 75. (NFL teams, she points out, are limited to a mere fifty-three players.) That, she says, would allow the schools to drop the number of scholarships from eighty-five to maybe as few as sixty-five, saving each program a bundle of money without sacrificing any revenue.

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