The Long Bomb

“It requires an enormous staff and infrastructure to keep that large number of personnel afloat,” she explains. “And I would argue that the saving from that and the other unnecessary expenditures from recruiting, et cetera, would move you to compliance with Title IX and you’d never have to eliminate another men’s sport.” And most programs could do all this without sacrificing revenue. “The beauty of downsizing is that you’re still going to sell out every home game if you’re a place like Notre Dame or Michigan, and you’re still going to get conference revenues, you’re still going to get TV revenues,” Kane explains. “So your input is going to be unchanged, but your output will be significantly reduced.”

If that seems like an obvious solution, it’s similarly obvious why there’s no movement toward such a reform at the NCAA level. Clearly, the status quo serves the dominant schools very well. “It’s not in their self-interest to change,” she says. But that’s not to say that the status quo will survive, says Prof. Dan Fulks of Transylvania University, who authored a recent study on the economics of college athletics for the NCAA. Fulks points to Vanderbilt’s decision last month to fold its athletic department into the university’s central administration and Tulane’s threat to drop football as signs that change is on the horizon. “Although I really do not see many Division I-A schools seriously considering eliminating football—and I’m not altogether certain the Tulane threat was sincere—I do believe changes are forthcoming,” he says. “While we will soon hit a ceiling for revenues, no such ceiling for expenses exists.”

Fulks also believes that the current Bowl Championship Series format, which exacerbates the disparity between the haves and the have-nots of college football, will be changed when the current contract expires. “Although there are no easy answers for individual schools,” he says, “I am confident that, as a group, NCAA member schools are ready for some significant changes.”

Back in the Dome’s cheap seats, I’m not devoting a lot of energy to the issue of the Gophers’ competitive disadvantage because the Maroon and Gold are stomping all over the overmatched Hurricane. Still, by the start of the fourth quarter, the crowd in the lower bowl has dwindled sufficiently for my son and me to sneak down among the season-ticket holders around the thirty-yard line, and we enjoy fifteen minutes of sloppy college football, as each team gives its scrubs a chance to bring home a rug burn or two.

“Everybody’s really old down here,” Martin points out a little too loudly, as the clock ticks down. And as I look around, I can’t help noticing that we’ve landed among what looks to be a collection of fans transported directly from the old brickyard, circa 1960. And I can’t help wondering whether this is the crux of the issue: The Gophers are still playing football because their core audience (students have long since stopped buying tickets) is old enough to remember that great 1960 team and young enough to flirt with the possibility that it could happen again.

These are the folks who donate to the scholarship funds. These are the diehards who buy the season tickets, the fans who come back year after year in search of some magic. Nobody here is losing any sleep over Title IX or athletic department budget deficits or institutional priorities. They’re here to watch football. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Tulsa or Troy State or Purdue or Michigan: The dream remains the same. The cynic in me wants to tell them that those dreams are destined to be smashed in places like Columbus and Ann Arbor, where the stadiums reek of history in ways the Dome never will. I want to tell them that none of this ultimately is sustainable, that college football is broke. But my son is standing and trying his best to mouth the words of the Minnesota Rouser, and the ancient maroon-and-gold-clad alumni in the row ahead of us are doing the same. And it gradually begins to dawn on me that maybe it’s not the Golden Gophers who are the lost cause—maybe it’s me.

Craig Cox is executive editor of
Utne magazine and editor of the Minneapolis Observer, a weekly email digest of all things Minneapolitan.

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