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Eastern Michigan spends a lot of tuition money to lose football games

Apr 29, 2016

HBO’s “Real Sports” ran a feature last week on the arms race in college sports. It questioned why Eastern Michigan University still spends so much money to compete in Division I football.  Michigan Radio sports commentator John U Bacon has been asking the same question for a decade.

Eastern Michigan has competed in the Mid-American Conference since 1973. The Eagles have won 134 conference titles in 20 sports. They excel in track, cross-country, swimming – men’s and women’s -- and occasionally baseball and basketball. But in football, the Eagles have taken home exactly one MAC title in 43 years, back in 1987.

The football team is, well, bad. In 1995, they went 6-and-5 – and that was their last winning season. Under coach Chris Creighton, they’re 3-21.

That’s one problem. Here’s another: last year, EMU’s athletic department spent almost $34 million – most of it on football. 80-percent of that budget came from the University’s general fund. By comparison, Michigan and Michigan State get less than one-percent of their athletic budgets from their universities. As a result, about $1,000 of the $10,000 tuition the average EMU student pays each year goes to support the athletic department – whether they care about it or not. 

And that’s the next problem: Most EMU students, faculty and alumni do not care about the football team. That’s why the Eagles draw fewer than 10,000 fans per game – the lowest in all of Division I. I’m willing to bet more Eastern students follow the Michigan Wolverines than the Eagles.

Of course, a lot of things universities do don’t make money, like teaching Latin. That’s why most universities work for the public, not profits.

But in the last decade, when EMU’s athletic department doubled staff salaries to $6.4 million, including 21 new positions, while the rest of the entire university added just 16 full-time employees, you have to ask some serious questions. What’s the purpose of a state university? If it’s to provide education and research to benefit the public, what’s the point of spending millions on a football program your students and faculty don’t care about?

These questions become more poignant when you consider most EMU students aren’t from wealthy families. They’re taking out expensive loans, working their way through school, or both. Perhaps the most celebrated Eastern Michigan graduate last week was Ramone Williams, who gained headlines when it was discovered he was homeless. To save enough money to pay his tuition, he slept in the library.

What’s more incredible is that Mr. Williams is not the only homeless student at Eastern Michigan. If there is even one, however, how can this school justify spending $30 million on its football team – including hundreds of thousands to pay buy-outs for failed football coaches?

Eastern actually has a lot of options, including dropping down to a Division II league like the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. They’d swap playing Central Michigan for Grand Valley State, and save millions. They’d probably win more games, too. They’d have to, wouldn’t they?

True, the athletic department has recently attracted more donations and season ticket buyers. So, perhaps the current regime deserves a chance to right the ship.

But when the EMU regents recently came out with a full-page letter announcing they supported EMU football 100-percent, you have to wonder whom, exactly, EMU’s Regents are supposed to represent. The students, the faculty, the alumni, the state taxpayers or voters, most of whom wouldn’t care if EMU cut football? It looks like Eastern’s Regents are speaking for Eastern’s Regents, and nobody else.

If the Regents have their way, the Eagles will probably keep finishing last – in wins, in attendance, in revenue. Or the Regents could choose to be leaders, and be one of the first Division I schools to say, “Enough!”

Now would be a good time to be leaders.