Zero-Sum Game

Recent athletics cuts at several HBCUs raise questions about the role of sports at small, private colleges.

February 2, 2016
Stillman basketball game

Athletic cuts never go down easy. Upset students or alumni make the news almost as soon as the cuts themselves. So it went at Temple University several years ago and the University of Maryland at College Park before that and, of course, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where a plan to eliminate the football team was reversed.

But those colleges have Division I teams and tens of thousands of students. There’s a different story for smaller, private colleges outside of big-time athletics where the math may be easier -- no billion-dollar revenue-sharing agreements -- but financial pressures are ubiquitous and sometimes dire.

In the space of a few weeks at the end of last year, two small, historically black private colleges announced significant cuts to their athletic programs. Concordia College Alabama dropped its football team, which officials said cost over $500,000 a year and ate up a third of the athletics budget, and Stillman College went further -- shuttering everything but men's and women's basketball. Earlier in the year another HBCU, Paine College, suspended its football program only a year after it was reinstated. Data collected by the Department of Education show that football cost Paine almost $900,000 in the 2014-15 academic year. A couple years before that, Spelman College got out of intercollegiate athletics altogether.

Spelman's shift, accompanied by a big push on fitness on campus, has been widely praised. But Spelman is a women's college, and while its athletes were committed, it was never a college where intercollegiate athletics were a major force. At many historically black colleges, athletics are a point of pride -- even as programs lose money. And rivalries among various black colleges, while little noticed in the world of big-time athletics, mean a lot to athletes, students and alumni.

"One of their core functions was to be a part of the community in a way a lot of other schools weren't," said Thomas Aiello, an associate professor of history at Valdosta State University who wrote a book about one of the best-known HBCU football rivalries. "They became these places for their community to look up to," he said, "[and] athletics became the front porch of the university … sports plays this really large role in binding the college to their community."

The national resonance of some of those sports programs has declined, however, Aiello said, and "attendance at a lot of these games is not as high as it was in the 1970s, for example."

So, do these recent moves constitute a pattern? If so, are we in for a rash of small colleges, HBCUs in particular, drastically reducing or eliminating their athletics programs to save money? Probably not. But it may become more common, experts say, particularly at small institutions facing rising costs and uncertain enrollment.

“Without a doubt, this was the most difficult decision I’ve had to make during my entire professional career,” said Peter Millet, Stillman’s president. “It affects so many people, but of this I’m certain: something had to be done.”

Millet started a campuswide reorganization effort about a year ago in order to bring the college’s budget under control. He did not provide specific numbers, but said north of $2 million went to the money-losing athletics program every year. So, in addition to consolidating top-level administrative positions and other cost-saving measures, Millet redirected funds from athletics toward education and general wellness programs. According to Education Department data, Stillman will eliminate 10 teams comprising 224 athletes.

"The reason people come to school is to get a degree. In my mind, that has to be first," he said. Everything else is in service of that.

Many colleges are in a position very similar to Stillman’s, said Mark Nagel, professor of sports and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina. “Division II [Stillman’s former division] is problematic,” he said. “It’s not the glorified high school schedule of Division III.” It’s got longer trips, bigger expenses, but “the revenues are not very big, and in many cases they’re nonexistent.” Nor do many of those colleges have the resources to field consistently winning teams. They rarely manage to break even, and, instead, end up subsidizing their own sports programs, often via student fees.

“At a certain point you have to ask, do we want to subsidize losses?” he said. “What do we get back?”

Eddie Comeaux, associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Riverside, said that, increasingly, he believes the answers to those questions will be "no" and "not enough," respectively.

“We’ll start to see more and more cuts to athletics,” he said. “Because [colleges] can’t continue to subsidize their athletics programs.” Not in droves, not every month, but more and more, because, “It’s easier to make a compelling case for academics rather than athletics because it’s not as easily measured.”

You can point to a spreadsheet, Comeaux explained, and say, “We can save this much money,” whereas damage to a campus or a college from reduced or eliminated athletics is difficult to measure. It can hurt recruitment or morale on campus, but those are difficult to quantify.

Still, intangible as it is, passion for sports even at small colleges can run very deep.

“It’s so much of what people think of when they think of their experience in college. Even if they didn’t attend games or play sports themselves,” Nagel said. “So many people equate colleges sports with a key part of college education.”

Even at Stillman, where significant resources for athletics will be rerouted toward new academic and wellness programs, sports haven’t disappeared altogether. The college kept its basketball team (Stillman’s primary sport, historically), and it is applying to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a smaller intercollegiate athletic association that places fewer financially burdensome requirements on its members than the larger National Collegiate Athletic Association.

“The administration is still in favor of having sports,” Millet said. “Which is why we didn’t get rid of sports altogether. We’re going to grow the sports back,” he said, budget permitting. “It’s like you’ve got a rosebush. Sometimes you have to prune it back to allow it to blossom. That’s what we’re doing.”

Rather than going so far as to say more and more colleges will go the way of Stillman or Concordia, Nagel said he believes more people, and students in particular, will raise questions about the role of sports on their campuses and where their fees are going.

“What’s starting to happen on a lot of campuses, as tuition and fees increase at a much higher rate than inflation is, the student body, student council are raising questions,” he said. “When you start to ask students to pay for something, the question becomes, ‘How much do I want to pay for something I may not participate in?’”


Back to Top