Writing in this space last summer, I observed that the new president of Western Washington University, Bruce Shepard, should face relatively favorable circumstances when he arrived in September. A nasty faculty-union dispute had been settled, he had a free hand to name assistants, and the climate on campus was optimistic.
That was before the economic crash of the fall, and threatened state budget cuts of 13 percent for all higher education.
Last week, Shepard made his first headline decision. He eliminated the WWU football program after 105 years, the last 10 as a member of NCAA Division II. Aside from players, coaches and a few loyal Viking alums, it was a yawner, a no-brainer and further evidence of how far colleges have come under Title IX, the federal program that sought to make women’s athletics roughly on a par with those for men.
Western, at least in my 14 years on its faculty, never had a football culture. Most students were apathetic, faculty rarely attended games, and Whatcom County evinced little interest despite a passion for high-school games. Aside from the rivalry with Central Washington University, a football game rarely drew more than 2,000 fans. When Shepard’s decision was announced in Thursday’s Bellingham Herald, not a single reader posted a comment.
The Saturday tailgate culture of big-school football had no grip on a campus with no fraternities or crowds of community backers available in larger cities. Western students prefer active snow sports and basketball; Title IX brought women’s sports into the limelight, and Western women in crew, volleyball, and basketball developed excellent records and lots of campus support.
As a professor, I found Western athletes as motivated and conscientious as other students, and never heard a colleague complain of pressure on athletes’ grades. Sports seemed to be in perspective, with only the size of the football program drawing criticism.
Compared to the other 15 intercollegiate sports at Western, football looms large in budgets as well as player weights. Western’s athletic program gets about $1.05 million in state aid annually, university officials say. Dropping football will save roughly $450,000 a year, and allow the other sports to survive. Travel costs continue to rise, and only two of Western’s conference opponents are in-state.
When Western opted to join NCAA Division II in 1998, there was concern, particularly among faculty, that it was a step toward big-college athletics, with all the costs and hoopla that Western had previously avoided. That’s unlikely now, although small schools such as Gonzaga and Seattle University compete with the big guys in basketball. The culture at Western is not encouraging to such a move, and Shepard is keen enough to grasp that and use the budget squeeze to trim a program that had not paid its way in many years and had a limited support base.
Those “other sports” that hardcore jocks disparage, such as volleyball, crew, and soccer, should prosper from the departure of the 800-pound gorilla. Other small colleges that still offer football may begin wondering when the revolution will arrive at their gates.