UAB Football Debate: A Local Decision with National Implications

As was widely reported, after a campus-wide study, the University of Alabama – Birmingham recently decided to discontinue its football program.

The driving force behind their move was the NCAA’s recent approval of a measure to give more autonomy to the five powerhouse conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12), allowing them more flexibility to provide additional benefits to athletes. Some estimate the added cost of “keeping up” with programs that provide these benefits at $5million per year. This will undoubtedly significantly increase the competitive distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

In an article published in the December 6, 2015 edition of Birmingham News, I praised the university’s board and leadership team for recognizing the fact that competitive and financial realities change. Simply put, a school that refuses to recognize changing realities risks damage to its ability to fully meet its institutional mission. Expecting academic institutions to continue to fall on a financial sword for athletics in the name of alumni ego and a national profile based on sports is quite frankly, irresponsible. I added that UAB leaders should be commended for providing something that has long been sorely lacking in the landscape of American higher education. Specifically, courage, leadership, common sense and educational vision as it applies to big-time college athletics.

In the weeks since the decision, campus rallies and protests have taken place, some donors have threatened to withdraw their support and the faculty senate has approved a resolution of no confidence in President Ray L. Watts’s ability to lead the university. The result is that Watts and UAB are considering reinstating the program in 2016.

While the natural thing to do would be to simply turn our attention elsewhere while the UAB community debates what role, if any, football will play on their campus, to do so would be misguided and shortsighted. This is a debate we need to pay attention to because this discussion, in one form or another, is going to play out on a growing number of high school and college campuses and communities.

A National Teaching Moment?

UAB’s situation is not the only current issue contributing to calls for a more focused examination regarding the role of football in our educational system and society. Several court cases that will have a major impact on the foundation of college athletics and the NCAA’s “amateurism” model are winding their way through the court system. The Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and thus, can unionize. There is the NFL and the culture surrounding football, which has been under increasing scrutiny as it relates to issues such as domestic abuse, “bullying”, sexism, and the use of performance enhancing and pain killing drugs. Finally, there is the concussion issue, where seemingly every day, new evidence emerges regarding the damaging impact of football on the brain, affecting the entire range of football participants, from retired NFL players to youth football participants.

But beyond these specific issues, there is also a more general concern regarding elite athletics and in particular, football, due to its sheer size and enormous influence, that has far reaching impact. Specifically, our country has lost perspective regarding the role of organized sport in our culture. We have come to glorify athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement. The result has been the grotesque distortion of educational priorities through the disproportionate resources and attention devoted to athletics, with football driving the ship. If we are ever going to begin the process of restoring a cultural balance regarding the proper relationship between sport and education, it is up to the higher education community to initiate it. And the fundamental question at the heart of that debate is in a rapidly changing global economic and world community, what role what role should football play throughout our educational system?

But the bright side of the story is that the emergence of these and other related issues in our national collective conscience has presented an opportunity. Specifically, it has opened the door for a much-needed national debate regarding the role of football in our educational system and our society in the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, what UAB does with its football program is up to the UAB community as local autonomy is a benchmark principle of higher education. That said, however, given that one of the most fundamental roles of higher education is the search for truth and to provide leadership in addressing the most pressing issues of the day, this is a seminal moment for college and university leaders.

In other words, this is a national teaching moment that we cannot afford to waste. And if higher education leaders do not drive this national debate, who will?

Football in the Twenty-First Century

Make no mistake, the costs of our heavy educational “investment” in football are steep. From mangled bodies and scrambled brains to academic fraud to growing athletic department deficits to the glorifying of athletic feats over academic accomplishment to its obsessive win at all cost culture, all of which severely limit its potential as an educational tool. Yes, football’s entertainment qualities can bring joy, unite a community and teach valuable life lessons, but the fact is, football is not unique in its’ potential and ability to provide these benefits. Other sports and activities, such as music, can provide such advantages and more, without those side effects.

The issue is balance. Somewhere along the line, our cultural consensus regarding the importance of athletic performance versus intellectual achievement has become grotesquely distorted. And the societal consequences of our loss of perspective are becoming too great. Specifically, as we struggle to meet the rapidly changing educational and economic demands of the twenty-first century, should we continue to celebrate a culture that promotes anti-intellectualism, undermines educational values and “scrambles” kids’ brains.

Given these realities, it is clear that athletic reform is no longer about the traditional fare of student-athlete welfare, academic integrity, and presidential control. Today, reform is about the cultural values we will pass on to our children and grandchildren. It is about ensuring that we prize and reinforce values such as intelligence, academic achievement and educational excellence over athletic prowess. And it is about reconsidering whether we continue to invest in activities, that while entertaining, are not necessarily all that effective in driving the types of positive educational outcomes that are necessary for our economy and society in the twenty-first century.

We need to have a national discussion regarding whether our enormous educational and community investment in football continues to make sense in a world that has changed dramatically since it was incorporated into the fabric of our educational system in the late 1800’s? The fact is, our world is changing at breathtaking speed and the educational challenges inherent in responding to that change are daunting.

Against this backdrop, is it wise to continue to sponsor an activity that was incorporated into our educational system because it was viewed as a way to train a workforce for an industrial economy when that type of economy no longer exists? This, at the expense of other activities, such as music, that are much more in line with the challenges presented by a creative, information based, global economy and world community than does football.

This is not to say that football does not have a place in our society. It does. Rather, the question is whether that place should continue to be within our educational system.

An Broad, Deep and Honest Debate

Regardless of what UAB ultimately decides to do with its football program, the fact remains that their discussion at the local level can and should serve as a vehicle for a larger and wider national debate about the role of football in our educational system. And true to its societal mission, the higher education community must assume responsibility for driving that debate.

But a national debate, does not mean simply creating a national committee or task force that discusses issues, generates a report, garners some temporary media attention and then is placed on the shelf to gather dust. Rather this debate must occur on all levels within our educational system and communities. Yes, there is a place for national forums, conferences, task forces and the like. For example, momentum is building to create a Presidential Commission to review the role of college athletics. That is not enough. If we are going to go to the trouble of creating a Presidential Commission, we might as well have it address the root influence (the football culture) that impacts our entire educational system. Again, football drives the ship and is the “elephant in the room” of education reform. Yes, we should establish a Presidential Commission. But its’ purpose and focus should be to study the role of football in our entire educational system, not simply our colleges and universities.

As the late Congressman, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” So while such national efforts can provide guidance and bring attention to the issue, the real dialogue has to occur on the local level. That means, on individual college campuses, within college sports conferences, at the high school level in local school boards and PTA meetings and at the community level within recreational leagues and community sports associations. In short, the debate has to be deep and broad because the influence of football and its culture within our educational institutions and communities is deep and broad.

Every bit as important is that these debates must be more than simply deep and broad, they also have to be honest, open and data-driven. Specifically, we can no longer blindly continue to sponsor activities based only on anecdotal evidence, simply because we have always done so or because a particular activity’s “lobby” screams the loudest. For too long, institutions and communities at all levels have relied on unquestioned football “lore” in making such decisions. That is not enough. Decisions of such magnitude must also be driven by fact, data and research. Fortunately, there is a growing amount of research on the impact of football on student learning and engagement, brain function, academic environment and health, both individual and public, to draw from. And it is safe to say that that research is increasingly less than flattering.

It is imperative that we approach these difficult decisions with a more thorough understanding of the wide range of issues and impacts that these activities have on educational and community outcomes. The purpose of these debates must be clear: to engage in a thoughtful, thorough and clear-eyed analysis of the value and role of football in our educational system and society.

This is not about bashing football. Rather, it is about attempting to figure out how and where it best fits into American society in the twenty-first century. It is about determining its appropriate role and form in a world that is radically different from the world that existed when it was formally incorporated into the fabric of our educational system.

The fact is, football in some form is going to be a part of our culture and society. The question is how best to structure it in communities and schools to maximize it’s benefits and minimize its negative impacts.

So while UAB will be discussing this issue at the local level, we should all pay attention because the narratives, claims, myths and decision factors driving this debate are going to be playing out in hundreds of educational institutions and communities throughout America. This is an important issue in education with broad societal implications. That being the case, it is the higher education community that must ensure that the debate is honest, open, data-driven and above all, truthful. In the end, isn’t that higher education’s fundamental mission – the search for truth as it applies to the issues of the day?

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