Excerpt: How America’s Most Violent Game May Be Saving Liberal Arts Colleges

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Head football coach Buck Buchanan’s young Warriors are 2-2 and appear to be rolling. Courtesy: Hendrix sports information

For the last few months, I’ve been working on a piece for SB Nation Longform on the new Hendrix football program and how it reflects a larger nationwide trend. It published this week. Here’s a man-sized excerpt:

In recent years, more and smaller colleges and universities are starting football programs or restarting those shuttered long ago. In an era when many major colleges are grappling with increasingly bloated athletic budgets, between 2008 and 2012, 29 smaller colleges started lower-level football programs. And in 2013, despite the fact that mounting medical evidence concerning brain damage has placed the future of an entire sport at risk, 12 more colleges started football programs this fall. In Division III alone, 10 schools have started football programs in the past five years.

Why?

To understand the reason so many small college administrators find football to be a lucrative proposition, take a visit to Hendrix’s season opener on Sept. 7 against Westminster University. Pay no mind to the “Undefeated since 1960” orange T-shirts worn by Warrior fans filling the metal bleachers of the brand new Young-Wise Memorial Stadium, or the concession table covered by Hendrix Warrior seat cushions, pennants, umbrellas and replica jerseys. Note that not a single ticket stub litters the ground. At Hendrix, all games are free. Ticket sales and merchandising are insignificant to the financial benefits of fielding a football team.

Instead, look to the alumni in the stands, and the players in their brand new uniforms. In the stadium are about 30 representatives of the old guard – players from the 1950s and the 1960 team who have come to cheer on the torchbearers they never expected to see. During a pregame ceremony, an announcer said, “After a 53-year timeout, we’ll now start the clock over on Hendrix football,” and the captains of Hendrix’s 1960 team took the field and handed a ball used in their last game to Caton and Hunter Lawler – captains of the 2013 edition. Many from the 1960 team are on the Hendrix booster club, which recently raised more than $50,000 for athletic facilities and equipment.

But the real money is on the field. Focus on the 6’2 Caton, who strides onto the field for the first game with authority, one of only a handful of Warriors who have actually played in a college game before. Then look at his 53 teammates, mostly true freshmen, as they take the field on this blistering hot afternoon.

Only a couple hundred feet to the north sits a glistening new field house, including a locker room with 93 player lockers. Long before they were stuffed with mouth guards and sweaty helmets, each of these climate-controlled spaces held a promise. Every new player gives future Hendrix teams the depth to one day be a serious contender on the field. At the same time, each of those players also provides Hendrix College an influx of the cash it needs to remain relevant in a world where pure liberal arts education is increasingly becoming an endangered species.

Read the entire article here.

Coincidentally, the same day my article published, so did Arkansas Times publish a cover story with similar themes. The author, David Ramsey, did a nice job going into the details of how expensive Hendrix’s football program is and how much of that expense has already been covered:

“The upfront cost of building new facilities (many of which are used by other teams and the general student population in addition to football players) was around $6 million, funded by municipal bond money. “All of that has not been a financial burden on the school and hasn’t adversely impacted other programs,” Knight said. [Knight is the chairman of Hendrix’s board of trustees]

The Hendrix athletic department declined to disclose the coaches’ salaries or the annual budget for the football team. Division III coaches’ salaries cannot exceed the salary of the highest paid faculty member.

Knight said that the program is projected to be self-funding in three to five years, but said it could happen more quickly than that because of early success in raising money for the program from donors.

“Those projections were very conservative because they did not include outside money,” he said. “Already we’ve raised roughly a third of the cost of the program. Initially it appears that everything is working the way it’s supposed to be working and we’re looking for the program to be financially positive for the college and to generate revenue that we can apply to other programs.”

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