Tragic wakeup call for FIU suggests a reverse on football
By Michael Lewis
It took tragedy to again spotlight Florida International University football.
Not since a 2006 on-field brawl with the University of Miami brought national notoriety has FIU football captured so much media time.
It took last week's brawl in the fitness center with a star player stabbed and kicked to death and a former fringe player charged with murder to put the program back in the limelight.
That came less than a week after a Miami Herald report that the public university's students each pay an average of $350 a year, highest in FIU's conference, to support sports. Football gets the lion's share.
The news is a wakeup call that building a football machine at a young commuter school can be hurtful, far from achieving the aim the Herald cited of a program that "burnishes the institution's brand."
What seeks to burnish can, poorly handled, tarnish.
Let's be clear: a slaying might have involved two drama society or study group or orchestra members. Violence is not inextricably linked to high-profile football, and it remains tragic no matter who is involved.
That said, let's also be clear: student violence is disproportionately linked to football players.
The drama society or study group or orchestra could erupt in argument, but among football players arguments more often turn violent. A report of the slaying ends by recalling stabbing and shooting deaths of University of Miami football players as well.
FIU began football only in 2002, and three years later decided to climb to the rarefied air of a top-tier program. That has cost $50 million to upgrade a stadium plus many millions to build a big-time team from scratch.
Considering that the team has been a big-time loser, the image has been burnished mostly in the minds of school officials. Publicity has come through brawl and tragedy.
Across town, the University of Miami has long branded itself via football. That has led to a winning team with broad media attention and burnished the image of a football school, an image that poorly serves the UM's growing academic quality.
A recent two-hour ESPN documentary on University of Miami football talks of players burglarizing autos, dealing in drugs, brawling and embezzling. It also notes the football victories.
That documentary illustrates the vast gulf between football stars and students seeking knowledge. Florida International University, at least, should never have allowed such a gulf to grow.
Some blame is due legislators and officials who fund education based on football scores, not academic service or research or numbers of Floridians getting a superb education.
But blame also administrators who drove a commuter school down the wrong road. FIU football coach Pete Garcia says in the Herald that his team needs more funds to play the likes of Florida and Alabama.
"We're being asked to compete with these teams with less than 20 cents on the dollar," he laments.
Being asked by whom? Who put a gun to officials' heads and demanded FIU compete in big-time football at 20 cents on the dollar? Not the public. Not the students. Who?
"Nothing brings alumni back like athletics," President Mark Rosenberg is quoted. "It's a major part of the university's identity."
Add now brawling and campus violence to FIU's identity.
And let the students — many of whom work their way through school — each pay about a week's salary for the new image.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics is due soon to call for changes to college sports finances. It should be a clarion call.
The commission, formed in 1989 by Miami-based Knight Foundation in "response to more than a decade of highly visible scandals in college sports," last year surveyed presidents at universities with major football programs, who suggested collective reform.
Less than a quarter of the presidents felt college sports could be sustained financially as now organized.
An earlier report by the commission held scathing indictments of big-time sports.
Major college teams "do far more damage to the university, to its students and faculty, its leadership, its reputation and credibility than most realize — or at least are willing to admit," that 2001 report quoted University of Michigan president emeritus James Duderstadt.
The report cited "ugly disciplinary incidents, outrageous academic fraud, dismal graduation rates, and uncontrolled expenditures surrounding college sports."
It focused on extremely low graduation rates among athletes recruited with no expectation they would meet normal academic levels, yet many athletes get full scholarships and extensive academic support not given to others on campus and still don't keep up.
"Athletes are often admitted to institutions where they do not have a reasonable chance to graduate," the commission found.
Florida International University should consider very carefully where and how it recruits, assessing how it uses scarce funds to finance athletes who might not truly fit as students.
It should also examine thoughtfully its mission as an urban university.
And it should remember that it's not necessary to become a football power in order to be known nationally for the right, rather than wrong, reasons.
How many today know the University of Chicago as a Big Ten football power? It was — until it shut down football to concentrate on academics 70 years ago. Now it plays local junior colleges and has no trouble fundraising based not on sports but on academic acclaim.
Biggest football powers of all were once Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale. But they resisted athletic scholarships, fell out of top football ranks but somehow remain better known and raise vastly more money than FIU — and not because of football.
Florida International is in fact doing so many things right, both academically and organizationally, that it is today well positioned to reconsider its regrettable decision to put so many eggs in a sports basket.
"The real crisis facing college athletics is the sustainability of its business model, which is on a path toward meltdown," the Knight Commission's co-chairs wrote in the Washington Post in December.
That is to be sure much of the problem. Milking a commuter school's students $350 a year — $14.7 million in all — might or might not be sustainable, but it's clearly reprehensible.
Beyond financing the program, however, is the hubris of trying to keep up with the Floridas and Alabamas on the playing field rather than in academics.
As Coach Garcia correctly points out, those universities vastly outspend FIU on the field. The place to level the playing field, however, is not on the gridiron but in the classroom.
After Florida International mourns the death of one student and the likelihood that another will stand trial for that death, it's time to regroup and position the university to take the national limelight for something far closer to its mission than football.