Guest view: SIU should cut football to benefit other university sports

As Southern Illinois University begins yet another school year with roughly one-half the students it once had, administrators are trying to staunch the red-ink bloodletting, undermining any number of its once-top programs.

So here's a modest proposal that's been successful at more than 200 universities in recent decades: Let's cut the football program here that's draining massive revenues from the university at a time when our university cannot afford such a money-draining luxury.

Monies for football scholarships for some 70 student athletes and salaries for a small army off pigskin coaches could better be spent not only to bolster existing sports programs such as basketball, baseball and softball and to restore small men's and women's tennis programs, but also to support any number of academic programs suffering from historically low enrollments.

Were SIU to take this logical step, it would not be alone. More than 60 quality institutions of higher education have decided in recent decades that enhancing academics and less-expensive sports programs made both academic and financial sense. This list includes American, Boston, Bradley, California State (Long Beach, Fullerton and Northridge), California (Santa Barbara and Riverside), DePaul, Marquette, St. Louis and Wisconsin (Milwaukee). And more than 180 non-Division I colleges and universities also have made the same cuts.

Wichita State University, a Division 1 institution in the Missouri Valley Conference, axed its football program in 1986 - a program begun in 1897. In the 36 years since making that decision, its women's tennis team has regularly been one of the best in the MVC.

Wichita's men's baseball team received additional resources, allowing it in the past three decades to garner six College World Series appearances, 22 NCAA Tournament appearances, 19 regular-season MVC championships and 14 MVC tournament championships

Wichita State saved $4.1 million in 1986 by eliminating football. Multiply that number, and factor in annual increases over some 30 years, and it's clear Wichita State has saved - and reinvested in its academics and other sports programs - considerably more than $130 million. And, by the way, Wichita State also increased its enrollment since eliminating its football program.

But although faced with declining revenue, a draconian state budget, a former education-unfriendly governor and top administrators with lackluster records of increasing enrollments, SIU disregarded decisions made by Wichita State and other universities. Rather than axing its own most money-losing (football) sports team, SIU decided instead to eliminate men's and women's tennis - teams with overall winning records in recent years.

By shuttering SIU's tennis program (and also some swimming scholarships) the university saved an estimated to $660,000 - a pittance when compared to what it could have saved had football been axed.

Illinois has never been a big football state, like Texas or Ohio. Our state traditionally favors basketball. Just think how much better SIU's basketball team might be were it to have and invest a portion of the funds now going to prop up a mediocre football program.

SIU's current football stadium would not go to waste, but rather be put to good use for soccer and track-and-field events.

So before shuttering or draining revenue from more smaller sports programs, SIU administrators should ask themselves why they would endlessly pour millions of dollars into a gigantic undistinguished money-losing sport at the expense of its academic programs and other smaller, more economical varsity sports.

<i> William Babcock, emeritus media ethics professor in SIU's School of Journalism, is a former varsity football and tennis athlete, and an SIU graduate.</i>