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Derrick Z. Jackson

Football’s loss a win for NU students

By Derrick Z. Jackson
November 24, 2009

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GO NORTHEASTERN! I cheer you for cutting football. Your final touchdown was a score for sanity.

I know you are not happy about the official announcement yesterday. As Northeastern University athletic director Peter Roby told the Globe, “This is a very emotional decision. I’m sure people are going to be angry and disappointed and confused.’’ But you should be proud. Visions of gridiron glory did not delude you that it was worth the money to compete in the out-of-control race of Division I.

You knew what the vision would cost, already spending $3 million a year to play in what is known as the Football Championship Subdivision, which is not even the highest tier. The 238 of the largest colleges and universities that play football in Division 1 are split almost evenly into two subcategories. The top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, is reserved for those that have essentially become professional feeder franchises for the National Football League. The head coaches of Southern California, Florida, and Oklahoma now make $4 million a year or more.

Median expenses for athletic programs at Football Bowl Subdivision institutions were $38.6 million in 2006. A National Collegiate Athletic Association study found that from 2004 through 2006, five of every six athletic programs with a team in the Football Bowl Subdivision lost money. For the schools that lost money, the median gap between expenses and generated revenues ballooned to $13.2 million by 2006.

The next tier is the Football Championship Subdivision, which, along with Northeastern, includes other New England universities such as UMass, Maine, and New Hampshire. The same NCAA study found a $9.1 million gap between the $11.4 million median expenses of a FCS-level athletic program and the $2.3 million in median generated revenues.

Per-program expenses ran as high as $35 million in Northeastern’s subdivision, with only 1 out of every 25 football programs making money in 2006. And of the few programs that made money, the NCAA report said, “These net generated revenues are minimal.’’ To be sure, no Division 1 athletic program that does not have football turns a profit either. But the gap between revenues and expenses is significantly less.

So Northeastern, playing in a small stadium and to less than 1,600 fans a game, pulled the plug on football, with President Joseph Aoun saying the school needed to “invest resources in areas of strength, whether they are competitive athletic programs or cutting-edge academics.’’ That is similar to what then-Boston University provost Dennis Berkey said in 1997 when that school killed football: “Other BU sports, both varsity and intramural, now make stronger claims for the university’s resources and many of these teams enjoy consistency, higher interest.’’

BU appears to have invested well in its 12 years without football. Not having a Saturday tailgate does not seemed to have hurt either its national and global rankings as an academic institution. The athletes in the remaining sports do remarkably well. Its male athletes have a graduation success rate of 89 percent, including 100 percent for its African-American male basketball players. Its female athletes have a 97 percent graduation success rate.

That brings about an irony and the only caution about the dropping of football at Northeastern. The football team might have been a loser on the field, but its football team had a 70 percent graduation success rate, above the campus male average. Its hockey team and its women’s athletic program have respective graduation success rates of 83 percent and 89 percent. But its men’s basketball and baseball teams respectively have graduation success rates of only 33 percent and 40 percent.

With the energy and $3 million a year saved from no longer having to worry about improving the football program, one hopes that Aoun and Roby can more perfectly merge cutting-edge academics with the remaining competitive athletic programs. Northeastern scored a touchdown by dropping football. It still has to kick an extra point.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.