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Autumnal Saturdays are built around college football for a sizable segment of the population. Tens of thousands flock to campus stadiums each weekend to tailgate and cheer on the home team, and a couch potato could easily watch televised football from noon to midnight.

There is a contingent whose fall is built around a pilgrimage following their actual or adopted alma maters from city to city with a fervor and dedication similar to that exhibited by fans of the Grateful Dead. Years ago I was in New Orleans on a weekend when the University of Florida was playing Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, and on Saturday night in the French Quarter every other person was a Gator fan wearing school colors, most of them old enough to know better.

Football programs exert outsized influence at most Football Bowl Subdivision universities. A winning football coach may have more clout than either his athletic director or his president, and it is hard to imagine another faculty member getting a slap on the wrist comparable to the three-game suspension received by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer for his role in a case involving domestic abuse reports against one of his assistants.

The best measure of the influence of football on campus culture can be found in a quote from David Boren when he was president of the University of Oklahoma. Boren, a governor and U.S. senator before he assumed the presidency in Norman, stated that his goal was to build a university the football team could be proud of.

Despite National Collegiate Athletic Association efforts to sell intercollegiate athletics as about the ideal of the student athlete, big-time football is really part of the advancement arm of a university, designed to increase recognition and revenue. In a perfect, honest world, football and basketball players would be paid as public relations employees of a university, allowed to take classes if they wished but freed from the illusion that getting an education is their primary job.

It is also the case that Division I football is a spending sinkhole for all but the most successful programs. Running a Division I football program is expensive, and a number of colleges that have tried to raise the profile of their football programs, places like Georgia State University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, are struggling to win and to pay the bills.

There is another level of college football, though, where football is less about campus culture than school survival. A number of colleges in Division III have embraced football as an enrollment management strategy.

Over the past 20 years or so, nearly 50 colleges and universities have started football programs. Most of them are tuition driven for their existence, and many are struggling to enroll male students. A nonscholarship football program (there are no athletic scholarships in Division III) provides an influx of students and tuition dollars. The average Division III football team has around 110 members, and many admission offices at small colleges rely on football coaches to bring in a substantial portion of the incoming class.

When Hendrix College in Arkansas restarted football in 2013 after a 53-year hiatus (with the slogan “unbeaten since 1960”), it received coverage and national publicity from websites such as Deadspin and SB Nation. They reported that even with the cost of equipment and insurance added from having a football team, football provided an influx of nearly $2 million in tuition dollars.

Adding football is not a panacea, of course. For all the benefits in enrollment and school spirit brought by the addition of football, there is a tightrope to walk in making sure that those who come to a campus to play football don’t change the culture of a school academically or socially.

The cloud hanging over the sport of football and those dependent on it is the ongoing research into football-related brain damage. That research originally focused on the memory loss, depression and even suicide in some high-profile former professional football players, with repeated concussions as the culprit.

More recent research conducted at places like Boston University has revealed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, may be a product of routine football contact that doesn’t lead to concussions, and that CTE is found in the brains of those who played football only through college. A BU study chronicled in the Journal of the American Medical Association of the brains of 202 former football players found CTE was more pervasive than previously believed. Of the 53 former college players in the study, 91 percent had CTE.

Our understanding of the collateral damage to the brain from playing football is still relatively new. The 202 brains in the study above were all donated by families who suspected brain damage in their deceased former player family member, and there is currently no way to test for CTE in someone who is living. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that trauma to the brain in football players occurs more widely and more easily than previously believed.

What will be the outgrowth of the research and publicity about football and CTE? Participation in high school football has declined 2 percent in the past year, and between 6 and 7 percent in the past decade. In the metropolitan area where I live, three public high schools are not fielding varsity teams this year due to lack of players. Is that the canary in the locker room?

What happens to college football if the evidence of danger to players becomes more overwhelming? In particular, what happens to DIII institutions dependent on football for enrollment? Where is the ethical line between the health and well-being of players/students and the health and well-being of the institution?

I don’t claim to have the answers, and I’m not ready to get off the couch to change the channel on Saturday afternoons in the fall. It’s hard to imagine a sport as popular as football ever going away, although a recent story on NPR’s sports journal Only a Game reminded listeners that boxing was once a popular NCAA sport until several high-profile deaths brought about its end. But as small tuition-driven institutions think about and plan for the changing admission landscape, they can’t afford not to consider the future of football.

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