In the case of football stadiums, coliseum might be a better metaphor than cathedral. (UC–Berkeley’s football stadium was actually modeled after the Roman Colosseum.) The Roman republic’s gladiatorial matches were enormously popular, providing sponsors with publicity while satisfying the masses’ desire for cheap entertainment. When the moral depravity of the games became undeniable, imperial edicts were passed to restrict them, but they were largely ineffective. The people could not go without their blood sport, and even Emperor Constantine turned a blind eye to his own laws.
The games finally ended thanks to the outrage of a monk. In 404 C.E., St. Telemachus had had enough. “After gazing upon the combat from the amphitheatre, he descended into the arena, and tried to separate the gladiators,” writes Bishop Theodoret in his History of the Church. “The sanguinary spectators, possessed by the demon who delights in the effusion of blood, were irritated at the interruption of their cruel sports, and stoned him who had occasioned the cessation. On being apprised of this circumstance, the admirable [Emperor Honorius] numbered him with the victorious martyrs, and abolished these iniquitous spectacles.”
American college football has faced people like Telemachus, educators and administrators who resist the will (and deep pockets) of fanatics. In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, eliminated the school’s football program. It was not a popular move. Harvard’s athletic director mocked Hutchins’ physique, and Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward likened dropping football to Communism. Even Hutchins’ fellow university presidents were skeptical. “There have been times when I wished that we might have colleges and universities without football,” Purdue University president Edward C. Elliott told the Tribune. “This is perhaps a bit Utopian. Perhaps Chicago will prove that Utopia is possible. But Purdue is not Utopian and intends to continue to play football—and, we hope, good football.”
Fifteen years later, Hutchins reflected on the significance of his decision in an article for Sports Illustrated. “No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment,” he wrote. “Anybody who has watched, as I have, 12 university presidents spend half a day solemnly discussing the Rose Bowl agreement, or anybody who has read portentous discussions of the ‘decline’ of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Chicago because of the recurring defeats of its football team must realize that we in America are in a different world.”
Hutchins was aghast at his fellow presidents, who believed that “football had become the spiritual core of the modern campus.” He was disgusted by a system that reduced boys “to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos” and by colleges that “violate the rules they themselves have made,” pandering to “alumni with endowment-available money.”
“To anybody seriously interested in education intercollegiate football presents itself as an infernal nuisance,” Hutchins declared. “If all the time, thought and effort that university presidents, professors and press agents have had to devote to this subject could have been spent on working out and explaining to the public a defensible program of higher education we should long since have solved every problem that confronts the colleges and universities of the U.S. Since there is no visible connection between big-time football and higher education, the tremendous importance attached to it by colleges and universities can only confuse the public about what these institutions are.”
In the aftermath of the school’s decision to drop football, Chicago had indeed proved that utopia was possible. It succeeded, Hutchins noted proudly, in demonstrating that “‘normal’ young Americans could get excited about the life of the mind.”
Don’t think for a moment that Chicago is some freakish exception. In 2009, Northeastern University dropped its football program, to the dismay of many alumni and students. What happened? “For Northeastern, life after football is good,” reported the Boston Globe a year later. “There has been little or no blowback from alumni or students, as money once spent on football now serves other campus goals. In fact, the number of donors is up (from 19,559 to 21,797) as is the number of applicants (37,693 for 2,800 spots), and the stature of the university continues to rise.”
At Boston University, which dropped its football program in 1997, the number of alumni donors is up this year, despite a nationwide downward trend in annual giving. Intramural sports participation has risen 55 percent. And then there’s Spelman, and Hofstra, and UC–Santa Barbara, and, well, the list goes on.
Platitudes about potential loss of spirit aside, there’s only one serious obstacle facing schools that are tempted to get rid of football: the lure of big money. Money makes universities do funny things. In exchange for a $6 million gift to the athletics program, Florida Atlantic University renamed its football stadium after controversy-wracked private prison corporation GEO Group, owned by alumnus, former board of trustees member, and enthusiastic booster George Zoley. (The naming rights deal eventually collapsed amid a torrent of bad publicity.)
As I contemplate the recently renovated $62 million stadium on my own campus (naming rights still available!), it strikes me that a traditional religion once compromised its morals to pay for fancy cathedrals. Originally a minor aspect of Catholicism, indulgences took off when they were monetized effectively. Despite limits placed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, churches continued to bleed funds from the faithful in exchange for promises of salvation. The issue came to a head in 1517 when Pope Leo X sold indulgences to finance renovations of St. Peter’s Basilica. Scandalized, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and started the Protestant Reformation.
It is time for our own reformation. Students and parents: Choose schools based on the educational experiences they offer, not the ranking of their teams. Alumni: Donate because your school taught you something, not because it wins games. Faculty, administrators, and presidents: Don’t let your fear of being martyred stop you from speaking out publicly against big-money college sports. If higher education in America wants to preserve its integrity, we have no choice but to demand together: Get your stadiums out of our churches.