Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Case For Non-Scholarship Football

In the midst of discussions about conference realignment, the issue of scholarships and football at Georgetown, a Big East school that does not play football within its conference, has led those inside and outside the Georgetown community to ask what the role football scholarships should play in its future. This is the first of a three part series on the subject asking this question across a spectrum of possibilities: first, the case for the existing non-scholarship funding model.

Sports teams are like houses. You can’t tell how tall you can build until you check the foundations.

When Hofstra and Northeastern dropped football last year, the sport literally disappeared from these campuses. The foundation was only as good as the 63 scholarships that they spent on them, and there arose no salient efforts to continue the sport outside this model.

When Georgetown dropped scholarships in 1951, football never really left. In his brief term as president of Georgetown (1949-52), Rev. Hunter Guthrie was no friend of athletics, and by cutting 81 scholarships, he thought that would be the end of it. Instead, football hung around through 13 years of full-contact class intramurals, with coaches and fans at weekly games. That effort helped provide the foundation for club football, which would not have survived if the talent and interest wasn’t there in the first place. Were it not for club, the move to Division III would have been roundly opposed by an administration which still viewed football as some sort of Trojan horse upon academia, but in reality wasn’t so afraid of a sport which it saw with the students it was teaching in the classrooms every day.

Similarly, the move to the MAAC and the Patriot League could not have taken place—or survived-- without the foundations set in place during the Scotty Glacken era. Glacken knew the value of scholarship football—after all, the Washington D.C. native he won a scholarship to Duke, which propelled him into the AFL and later to a prominent position in the DC investment community, but he also understood the role of a non-scholarship program, too. “I’d like consideration to be a given to a boy who is a good student and if it happens he also plays football, that’s all the better,” Glacken told The HOYA in 1973. “If we’d have financial support from the University, it would give us something to work with.”

The case for non-scholarship football is an example of what works—the foundation is in place, need not be torn up, and absent the capital investment to do so, remains a cost effective investment for the University for what remains an extracurricular activity and not a revenue source or auxiliary enterprise.

Georgetown offer scholarships in a number of sports, from fully funded teams (basketball), to scholarships divided across much of the team (track, lacrosse, soccer), to a handful across various sports (golf, volleyball, baseball, etc.). Football is non-scholarship as much by rule as by direction—the Patriot League does not allow for merit-based grants and the Hoyas have not competed within a division of conference where scholarships were permitted since reviving football in 1964. To be a competitive team in scholarship I-AA football alone, from 57 to 63 scholarships are needed and that is not an insignificant expense in a program such as Georgetown’s.

Let’s take a look at five factors which can be used to evaluate a football funding model, adapted from a 2004 study at Rice University. While the concept of scholarships offers promise, a need-based aid model remains within a framework Georgetown can better live with.

Philosophy of Competition: As one digs into the foundations of football at Georgetown, the building blocks for the sport have always relied foremost on the student experience, or, as it was once referred, “football for fun”. Viewed against the bright lights of the Big East and the NCAA Final Four, this may seem a bit anachronistic. But viewed against its own foundations, it’s not. As outlined by former President Leo O’Donovan S.J., the non-scholarship model allowed GU to, in the words of former coach Bob Benson, to “utilize the game of football to create an environment and atmosphere among our students, faculty, and community on an autumn Saturday afternoon and bring to our campus a school spirit on a fall day that is desperately needed” by playing peer institutions that shared similar academic philosophies (e.g., Patriot and Ivy teams). The value of national recognition is subordinated to competing for the institution and for the game.

Peer Institutions: Athletic competition in any sport is best suited with comparable opponents and comparable missions. A community college is not Georgetown’s peer, neither is a school in the Southeastern Conference. While GU has met schools across the academic and athletic spectrum over 122 years of varsity football play, the present cohort of schools to which Georgetown is most closely identified are schools which maintain competitive non-scholarship football programs: generally, Ivy and Patriot league programs, while excepting a handful of programs above its football weight class (Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame) and a one or two below it (Johns Hopkins, Chicago). As long as this group continues to play football within this model, it’s a good home that Georgetown can live with institutionally, and compete reasonably with. Yes, Georgetown’s poor records in the Kelly era are a legitimate topic of concern, but the outcomes are not the result of its peers.

Peer competition is important to Georgetown. A low-scholarship conference (<20 scholarships) does not exist, while the closest mid-range league (21-50) would realign Georgetown which schools such as Wagner, Monmouth, and Stony Brook. At the highest levels of I-AA football (51-63 scholarships) is the Colonial Athletic Association, with teams such as Richmond, William & Mary, and Villanova. These are competitive peer schools, but at a significant price and at the loss of meaningful competition with the Patriot and Ivy League. As to major college peers (I-A), the tradeoffs of 85 scholarships, renting RFK Stadium or FedEx Field, and trading Brown and Yale for Pitt and Syracuse represents a quantum leap in admissions, budgets, and support, with the exposure of several million dollars in losses if game attendance or TV revenues do not match expectations.

Talent: Georgetown has always drawn students that are driven by academic success in the framework of a well-rounded education, and football should be no different. A non-scholarship athlete understands priorities off the field take precedence to those on it, and so do the coaches. This does not preclude greater success in the sport after college (the Ivies regularly send graduates to NFL training vamps, for example), but does not overwhelm it.

Georgetown does not play football as a mere avocation, of course. It recruits, trains, and expects players to be driven to be competitive on the field and, when successful in recruiting, can bring to the Hilltop great-student athletes in a sport. But it also expects a balance off the field to which a non-scholarship model is particularly accommodating. Since financial aid is awarded by the University on need and not on performance, the decision whether to play does not put one’s academic attendance into jeopardy. No one is “pulling” a scholarship for being a third string quarterback. If a football player is forced into a choice between the weight room and the classroom, that’s a choice no one at GU wants to put someone into.

Institutional & Constituent Support: The more competitive the college, the more scrutiny is placed upon admits. Georgetown has never been comfortable from an institutional point of view with special admits, sports or not. Even the concept of 3 or 4 men’s basketball players a year outside the traditional SAT ranges still causes an amount of institutional indigestion, unfair or not. By following an admissions policy that accepts students based on academic performance and admits based on the same financial aid formula available to any accepted student, football can seek to avoid the pushback that Georgetown is somehow weakened by a disproportionate share of special admits within a class.

A related factor is constituent support. A school like Villanova or even Fordham (which is moving to scholarship football) counts upon major donors to fund scholarship expenses. A major constituent base is, for now anyway, not developed at Georgetown. In 1976, the Gridiron Club proposed raising money for 50 need-based financial aid awards a year, or an annual commitment of $250,000, and fell far short. Thirty five years later, even $250,000 (now the equivalent of five scholarships per year) is a Gridiron Club goal and not an expectation. Absent a major giving drive, University-generated financial aid provides the only reliable means of support to student-athletes and can be expected to continue to do so.

Economics: If academic, peer, and institutional considerations don’t drive this conversation, economics do. For a broad-based athletic program such as Georgetown, there are simply insufficient revenues at hand to commit to athletic scholarships required between football and comparable women’s sports. Many schools that can offer full scholarships in football do so with a vastly abbreviated men’s sports program—Vanderbilt, for example, has just 29 male athletes in all remaining sports outside football, basketball, and baseball. Outside of these same three sports, Georgetown has over 300 male student athletes.

Yes, peer schools like Duke, BC and Notre Dame are able to run broader-based programs, but do so with significant television contract revenue Georgetown does not have, and overall budget roughly twice GU’s size. If a future TV contract wanted to pay Georgetown $20 million a year, perhaps then we can talk. Absent that kind of revenue, and amidst the rising cost of a full tuition grant at Georgetown, much (though not all) of the scholarship talk becomes moot.

Bear in mind that the cost of 81 full football scholarships (tuition, room, board, books and fees) in 1950 dollars totaled just over $100,000. In 2010 dollars, the cost of 81 grants is over $4.6 million. Double it, and that’s $9.2 million in men’s and women’s scholarships that would need to be supported every 12 months. The current scholarship budget for all 29 Georgetown sports combined is less than $6.5 million.

And in a dark, bottom-line way, that’s another reason why Georgetown is playing football in 2010 and Hofstra and Northeastern is not. The operating expenses of GU football totaled just over $256,000, net of financial aid and coaches salaries. It’s a much easier answer for Jack DeGioia to answer when an angry alumnus asks why we’re spending $250,000 on a losing football team as opposed to, say, spending seven or eight million on a losing team in a time of fiscal austerity. Leveraging the financial aid resources of Georgetown University makes football not just an expense but an investment that pays dividends—in students, in alumni, in giving, and in providing the kind of well-rounded college experience that a Hofstra or Northeastern doesn’t have anymore.

No one denies that the cost of attending Georgetown weighs heavily upon recruiting and, ultimately, with on-field success. Fortunately, the University’s top campaign initiative, the 1789 Scholarship Imperative, fits the program to a tee. The campaign aims to raise $500 million in need based aid over five years, the same need-based aid that could be raised by football consituents directly for the program. As written earlier this year,
  • “Georgetown is not 0-11 because of spring practice or the Multi-Sport Facility or assistant coaches--in large measure, it is 0-11 because it lacks the financial abilities of peer schools to recruit and admit football players that can elevate the program. The Department of Education public reports confirm that Georgetown's budget is half that of its closest competitor (Bucknell) and about a third of what Fordham and Colgate spend on football, in large part due to the lack of grant-based financial aid available to recruits. This was a gap the Hoyas faced when joining the PL in 2001 and it has been exacerbated in the intervening years. Whereas Colgate can offer the equivalent of full rides to 55 players on the team, Georgetown can't come close, and relies on loans and work study to fill the gap for recruits... If football is going to dig itself out of the ditch of the past few years, it needs talent, and a lot of talent needs competitive financial aid to keep Georgetown in the conversation--we know good recruits aren't coming to GU for the stadium or the training facilities but if it can be cost-competitive to choose Georgetown over Fordham, over Colgate, or some of the Ivies, the opportunity for competitive gains through recruiting become more realistic.”

A non-scholarship foundation, too modest for some and perhaps not for others, nonetheless allows for the two most precious resources of a college sports program: a present it can afford, and most importantly, the promise of a future to build upon.