Opinion: Amid Cuts, Does Buffalo Football Bring Value?

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The Buffalo News (New York)


Monday was a dark day for UB. It felt the way it had two years earlier, when basketball star Justin Moss was tossed out of school for stealing from other athletes. Now and then, you're reminded of the potential dangers that come with competing in the murky world of big-time college sports.

There was no crime this time, not in the technical sense. But it sure seemed as if something had been stolen. The university eliminated four teams - baseball, men's soccer, women's rowing and men's swimming and diving - to save $2 million.

I'm sure it was a gut-wrenching decision for the officials involved. Maybe that's why it was conveniently announced on one of the busiest sports days of the year. They had their reasons, mainly the fact that UB has one of the most heavily subsidized athletic programs in the country, and they needed to bring spending into line.

They can justify every regrettable cut. They're one of only five Mid-American Conference schools competing in men's soccer. They're the only one with women's rowing. Only three other MAC schools field teams in men's swimming and diving. Baseball? They can blame it on the bad weather and, of course, the need for overall gender balance required by Title IX.

UB now has 16 sports teams, the minimum necessary to compete in the MAC and in Division I's upper level, known as the Football Bowl Subdivision. There's no mystery about the power and imperatives of big-time college sports today. It's there in the name: Football. It doesn't say baseball or soccer, rowing or swimming.

Cut through all the scholarly rhetoric and it comes down to one sickening reality: This is the inevitable consequence of UB pretending to be a major college football program, which seems more and more a fool's errand with each passing year.

Many years ago, the late Bill Greiner had a Division I sports dream for UB. He saw the university becoming like a Big Ten program, one with top academics and a vibrant, major-college football program. It was a noble vision, but captive to a misplaced belief in UB football's ability to excite the locals.

It hasn't. President Satish Tripathi and AD Allen Greene say football is vital to a state school of UB's size. Where's the evidence? Are we supposed to believe that students apply to the university because of a football program that puts 5,000 people in the seats on a good day and generates minimal support from the students and the community?

People don't care. Look, I've tried to be optimistic about UB football. But this is a Bills town, a pro sports town, and MAC football simply doesn't register with them. Even when the Bulls were good with Khalil Mack and local legend Joe Licata, they didn't draw.

Buffalo fans need to feel connected to something bigger, and MAC football doesn't qualify. That's a shame, but it's a reality. The university pours one-quarter of the athletics budget ($7.53 million) into football and gets little bang for it. Vinny DiVirgilio, a UB soccer player, wasn't far off when he called it a "bottomless pit."

The idea of UB as a major football school is a hollow conceit. It technically puts them on the same level as Alabama and Ohio State. Those are essentially professional sports programs, with conference TV contracts that now run into the billions of dollars. Those schools are in a different universe, except in one key respect: Athletic subsidies. UB ranks ninth in the entire FBS in subsidies for sports, with about $24 million of its $32 million budget coming from subsidies in the form of student fees and general university funds. Some other MAC schools are also highly subsidized.

Meanwhile, many of the college sports empires don't need subsidies at all. Texas, Ohio State and LSU have budgets over $100 million, but have enough revenue to cover their costs. They function more like big corporations than college sports programs. Of course, that's what major college sports have become in America: Big business.

It's tough for a state institution like UB to keep up. I can't blame students and academics for objecting. When it comes to football, they're subsidizing a failed product. But UB is so heavily invested, they're unwilling to admit they're swimming in the deep end, with football the anvil tied to their ankle.

I've come around to the position of my colleague Bucky Gleason, who has been arguing for years that UB should abandon FBS football and drop to the FCS, where so many schools compete. He believes UB should seek a better basketball league and let hoops be the dominant program, the way it is at Villanova and so many other colleges.

There are plenty of top educational institutions that don't need football as a gateway. I'm sick of hearing about UB needing sports to improve its "brand." When I hear "brand," I cringe and think of Betsy Devos and the crowd that believes public education should be transformed into one big business.

Maybe it's time for UB to stop pretending a big-time sports program is so vital to its national image. Be bigger than that. Buffalo is somehow making a comeback, despite the Bills and Sabres being in the tank. It's sad to think a great university like UB would swallow the notion that you can't thrive without major-college football.

I understand that the problems go beyond football. But look at the sports they're cutting. Baseball. Swimming. Soccer. Rowing. How many hours have our Western New York kids spent playing those sports? I guess they're sports for the little guy (or gal), who seem to get the short end of things in the culture nowadays.

We're a rowing town. The best women's rowing coach in the world, Tom Terhaar, is from Buffalo. Emily Regan (who went to Michigan State) became the first Western New Yorker to win a rowing gold in Rio. I know the other MAC schools except Eastern Michigan don't row, but it's sad to think that Buffalo's university no longer has room for women's rowing.

The bigger football gets, it seems, the more the minor sports suffer in this country. I saw a report on the HBO series "Vice" the other night, which examined the hypocrisy of the major college sports, a cesspool of corruption where players are exploited and undercompensated in a multi-billion dollar industry.

UB dropped four sports, affecting 120 students, to save $2 million. According to "Vice," there are 82 college football and basketball coaches making more than $2 million a year. Jim Harbaugh makes $9 million at Michigan. John Calipari makes over $7 million at Kentucky. All in the name of education, right?

That's an outrage. The people in Buffalo should be happy not to have a college athletic program rise to that level, where you bow to the football gods and turn your gaze away from the academic fraud, the obscene salaries and the occasional athlete indiscretion.

If they can't compete at that level, and the community doesn't want it, what's the point? I imagine there are some sad, angry UB athletes out there, wondering why the university tries to be something that it's not.

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April 5, 2017


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