The last year I was in college my alma mater's football team won its first Mid-American Conference title.
The year was 1976 and Ball State had a nifty little quarterback named Art Yaroch, and a stud running back named Earl Taylor, and a fireplug of a fullback named George Jenkins. The defense, which crushed people that year, had guys named Maurice Harvey and Ken Kremer and Rush Brown, all of whom went on to play in the NFL. They beat everyone that year but Western Michigan, which smoked them because the Broncos had a running back named Jerome Persell the Cardinals simply couldn't tackle.
So, I love MAC football. Let's get that out there right off.
I also understand that it's not 1976 anymore, which is why I'm not alarmed, or even surprised, that faculty and students at MAC school Eastern Michigan are calling for the Eagles to leave the MAC and head for the Horizon League, and ditch Division I football altogether. Division II, or even Division III, would be preferable.
I agree. In fact, I'm tempted to agree it's the way to go for any school in comparable circumstances.
That's because football has become outrageously costly at the D-I level, and if it also generates outrageous revenue, it does so only at the highest levels of the sport. For schools on the MAC level, it's rapidly becoming financially unsustainable. Or to be more blunt: It's hurting the very university community it's supposed to be serving.
The call to drop out of D-I football at Eastern Michigan, for instance, springs from the fact that EMU students are now paying $917 in fees annually to support athletics, part of a $27 million subsidy the university provides to fund the school's $34 million athletic budget. And this is not an anomaly.
At Ball State, for instance, students now pay $610.66 per year in hidden athletic fees, according to a report in the Muncie Star Press. This works out to $11.6 million in subsidies -- up from $6.9 million in 2005.
A good chunk of that, of course, goes to prop up football, far and away the most costly sport for any D-I university. The issue for schools on the MAC level is the football investment doesn't come close to delivering an appropriate return; your Ball States and Eastern Michigans aren't going to the cash-rich BCS bowl games, if they're going to bowl games at all. The game, as they say, simply isn't worth the candle at the MAC level -- especially for students who are already burdened too often with crippling (and skyrocketing) student debt.
So what's the solution?
Right now the only solution is to do what the faculty and students at Eastern Michigan are suggesting: Drop down to D-II or even D-III. But the Blob sees something else coming down the wind: An eventual split between the Power Five football conferences and everyone else in D-I.
The Power Fives would be allowed to function as what they already are in everything but name: A corporate industry governed by rules appropriate to any corporate industry. Everyone else -- i.e., the MAC schools and others like it -- would be held to the same standards that govern athletics in the NCAA's lesser divisions.
In other words, they would be institutions of higher learning for whom athletics are truly just a component of the academic mission, and not businesses wholly separate from that mission. Scholarships and other financial aid would be available to athletes in the same way they're available to non-athletes. Football and basketball and everything else would carry no more weight within the university structure than programs in music and the arts.
And, yes, if that sounds like a deliberate devaluing of athletics, it can also be seen as a simple restoring of balance. The students would still come to the games. The athletes would still derive all the benefits college athletics provide in abundance. And the burden placed on everyone to continue running a losing financial game would be dramatically lessened.
“Culturally and geographically, EMU football will simply never succeed from an attendance and financial standpoint,” faculty member Howard Bunsis argued to EMU’s Board of Regents, according to the Detroit Free Press. “It is a losing proposition – always has been, and always will be. We hardly raise any money for football, and our attendance is the lowest in the country. Some of you believe that we are close to succeeding, if we just throw more money at the situation. This proposition is insane."