Keith Strudler: UAB Bowlers, Rejoice

Jun 3, 2015

Bowlers of University of Alabama Birmingham rejoice. After an agonizing several months, this week your college president Ray Watts reinstated your disbanded program that was cancelled last December, assumedly forever. And now, a semester later, the lanes are open for business. And you’re not the only ecstatic Blazer athletes right now. Also back from the dead is the UAB rifle team, which in the state of Texas thanks to new state legislation, could simply be called the student body. They’ll shoot again after also being resuscitated from extinction.

Of course, I’ve buried the lead. Also returning to campus is the UAB football team, a Division I program that plays in the lower tier Conference USA. Blazer fans can thank some $28 million in pledged donations, more than making up a $17 million operational deficit the president predicted over the next five years. The money came thanks to aggressive fundraising by businessman and UAB football alum Justin Craft, who covered the state and beyond to save the beleaguered football program. Craft got help from political allies such as Alabama State Representative Jack Williams, who used his platform as a megaphone to, as they termed it, “Free UAB.” Of course, that all depends on your perspective of freedom, but for Craft, Williams, and the hundreds who donated generously to the cause, it means being able to watch your team play Tulsa on Saturday afternoons.

UAB was, of course, the first Division I bowl subdivision program in history to collapse, the sole defector from the inherent arms race engaging big time college football. Their story was something of a perfect storm – a team in a secondary conference, a largely commuter campus, and overshadowed by two Goliath football schools in their own state. Without a clear pathway to success and increased pressures on university finances nationwide, Watts decided he could cut his program and its expense and declare victory.

Then again, it seems the president underestimated, or ignored completely, his true enemy. The adversary wasn’t the thousands of UAB students who were largely ambivalent towards their school’s team, at least by all reasonable measures. Instead, it’s the far fewer, but more powerful wealthy and vocal football supporters, most all of whom see the sport not only as a vital part of the American university experience, but also an apostle of divine intention. To those who fought to save UAB football, the game is not simply a game – it’s an essential organ. Consider their $28 million a hearty dialysis.

There’s considerable controversy about the financial reports used to initially ix-nay the football team. Of the three different studies, one predicted heavy losses, one robust gains, and the other somewhere in-between. Unfortunately, economic studies around sports are about as reliable as a teenager with a new sports car. So, Ray Watts took the safe choice, at least financially speaking, and figured people care more about student activity fees and overstuffed classrooms than a football team that’s number three in their own town. He may have missed the mark there.

In retrospect, Watts has taken some heat for his handling of the situation, which some say should never have been a situation in the first place. I think that’s somewhat unfair. Watts did what pretty much no one else in the country seems willing to do – address the unwieldy beast that is college football. He didn’t condemn it, insult it, nor wished it gone. He simply said it doesn’t seem to work on his college campus. It’s the same rhetoric that’s probably true for more than a few academic disciplines in certain universities as well. In fact, just take a look at a few struggling law schools and see if they could use the same blueprint.

But football doesn’t have tenure, which made it much easier to dismiss that line item expense than, say, and I’m just making this up, the Scandinavian archeology department. It seems he might have been wrong.

Perhaps there is an upside here. Critics of academia have warned that expenses are out of control and the education bubble is about to burst – which, for my own personal financial well-being, I hope isn’t true. It seems that there is new money to be found for American higher education. In this case, $28 million. Unfortunately, it might not come as most CFO’s want it – unrestricted and unregulated, which is by the way how all of us want everything. The challenge for most college presidents today isn’t simply to contain athletic expenses. It’s to leverage that cost into gain, and to do it without selling your soul.

Who knows if that’s actually possible. Ray Watts and a host of supporters at UAB are about to find out. As for the bowling team, well, let’s say for now, all puns intended, they’ve truly been spared.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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