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Professional Opinion

Rethinking college football as branding element

Mounting incidents of sports-related brain injuries should make schools think twice
University Business, November 2015
John Gerdy is author of "Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment." He also served as an NCAA legislative assistant and associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.
John Gerdy is author of "Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment." He also served as an NCAA legislative assistant and associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.

One of the primary justifications universities use for sponsoring football programs is that they serve as the “front porch” of the institution. Given the popularity and intense media coverage of the games, players and coaches, it is hard to argue the point.

For many institutions, football is the largest and clearest window through which the public views not only our colleges and universities, but our entire educational system.

It is not surprising that many schools consider football an effective way to build and strengthen their institutional brand. A successful football program can increase visibility, attract a more diverse student body and generate institutional resources in the form of sponsorships and donations. Some schools have started or re-instated football programs specifically for branding purposes.

The catch

Here’s a question every educational institution must consider. How do you continue to build and enhance the brand of an educational institution by focusing on an activity that scrambles kids’ brains?

If the central purpose of a university is to provide entertainment for the public, focusing on football as a branding tool makes complete sense. But if the institution’s central purpose is education, the search for truth and developing our nation’s youth, how is that helped by to sponsoring and celebrating an activity that an increasing amount of research tells us is profoundly dangerous and debilitating?

Isn’t the role and purpose of an educational institution to build and strengthen brains?

Given the changing cultural consensus regarding the dangers of football, a school that relies too heavily on the sport as a long-term branding tool may be setting itself up for failure. With increased attention by the media and the growing concern of parents for allowing their children to play football, the sport will face a steady decline in youth participation (already in progress) as well as sponsorship of junior high and high school programs.

Similar to boxing’s decline in public popularity due to its extreme violence, so too will football’s popularity decline.

A moral issue

There may come a time when the evidence of the physical costs to young people becomes so clear that public perception of schools that willingly “sacrifice” students in the name of athletic glory and financial gain may shift.

If colleges and universities are so cavalier with the long-term health of their athletes in the name of profit, what is to say they won’t be similarly cavalier regarding the education, health and well-being of other students? Given the public’s increasing skepticism regarding the value of a college education, yet another example of profit-before-education could come at great cost.

Will a university’s willingness to sponsor, highlight and celebrate an activity that places its students at significant risk of life-altering brain damage, all in the name of increased visibility, corporate sponsorships and public entertainment, be a brand element that will advance the educational mission? Sea of change

A case can be made that eliminating football shows far more educational vision, courage and responsibility in advancing an educational brand. Such a decision will represent leadership in getting ahead of the curve in what will be, despite the denials of the “football industrial complex,” a steady increase in the public’s distaste for a game that, while certainly entertaining, is intensely brutal and physically debilitating for our young people.

To all those advancement and public relations people who continue to view football as an activity to highlight and strengthen an institution’s educational brand, proceed with caution. The seas relating to the public appeal of football that is sponsored by an educational institution are changing.

John Gerdy is author of Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment (Archway Publishing, 2014). He also served as an NCAA legislative assistant and associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Contact him at JohnGerdy@aol.com.

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