Western Massachusetts is about to place a wager with high potential to lose millions, bring an influx of unsavory characters, and leave social wreckage in its wake. No, I’m not talking about casino gambling; I mean the deluded belief that the University of Massachusetts can become a profitable Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) powerhouse. Recent shakeups in football conferences threaten to cancel or limit UMass’s entry into the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and confirm that the university is betting on desperation odds. It’s time to give up football fantasies and concentrate on things that matter more.
I came to the Valley twenty-five years ago to get a Ph.D. at UMass. I love UMass, stayed here to be close to it, donate to it, and often teach courses there. But I grew up in Pennsylvania, where Penn State was a focal point of Commonwealth pride and was/is well-funded by the legislature. I was shocked to see how little Boston cares about UMass. I have taught in buildings with plywood nailed to the first floor to prevent people from falling to the basement. Campus wags say that the school motto is “Deferred Maintenance” and that its mascot is a classroom rain bucket. I can take you to places where jerry rigged plastic sheets and tubing is all the stands between dry land and a new campus pond. I can enumerate departments that have been understaffed for decades.
It’s shameful how the Commonwealth ignores its flagship but—as the slogan goes—it is what it is. UMass athletics suffered an $850,000 cut to its $23 million budget just last year, the region is losing population, we’re likely to shed a Congressional district, and the UMass board has a single regional representative. Western Mass will lose clout in Boston, not acquire more. Need I remind everyone that big-time basketball was going to bring prominence to the university? That the Mullins Center—now hemorrhaging money and managed by an outside firm—was going to replenish university coffers? Did the Commonwealth help that program? Will it rescue UMass if the MAC decides it doesn’t want the Minutemen, or boots them two years hence for insufficient attendance? (It’s no slam-dunk that UMass will average 15,000 fans for two years. It barely averaged that in 2010, even with a big- attendance “home” game vs. New Hampshire in Foxborough. Think UMass will draw 32,000 for that big rivalry against Ball State?)
Football is a money drain, though you have to decode the university budget to see it. In 2010 UMass budgeted $4.3 million for football; it brought in $1.2 million, but the books were “balanced” because student activity fees subsidized football (and other revenue-losing sports). Expect fees to skyrocket if UMass joins the MAC and football costs swell to nearly $7 million. Expect also that any residual revenue will go to Eastern Massachusetts, not Amherst. There will never be a large stadium on the UMass campus; local infrastructure cannot sustain it. UMass students will pick up the tab for Boston-area entrepreneurs.
And here’s the clincher. Even if UMass managed to build a respectable program comparable to that of neighboring Connecticut, big-time college comes at a social cost comparable to that of casino gambling. The NCAA is a cartel that’s as self-interested as the American Gaming Association. Money is made, but seldom by the schools involved; the NCAA admits that just 22 FBS schools actually made money on football during 2009-10. Big-time gamblers love college football, payoffs abound, and athletes are used like poker chips. Don’t take my word for it; check out what recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic, and Forbes have to say about it.
UMass uses “benchmark” schools to measure its academic and student life standards. Among its peers are UConn, Michigan State, and the University of Maryland. They’re fine schools but, with all due respect, I’d much rather UMass used universities such as Brandeis, NYU, the University of Vermont, and the UCal system (sans Berkeley) as benchmarks. Each is a topnotch academic institution with healthy enrollment and no football team. I call upon new UMass President Robert Carnet to shut down the Amherst football/craps game before millions of dollars are lost and academic excellence joins building maintenance on the “deferred” list.