Gridiron Fever

FIU administrators think spending millions on a football program will do wonders for their school, and they'll sideline anyone who disagrees

Lee says he knows plenty of faculty members who share his doubts about football. Most won't talk, though, for fear they'll suffer the same fate as Nate Bliss and Gerald Parks, two former campus recreation administrators. Last year Bliss and Parks jointly filed a federal lawsuit alleging that former athletic director Orville "Butch" Henry fired them for criticizing football. (Henry, FIU, Bliss, and Parks all declined to comment on the lawsuit. A trial date has been set for October 25.)

Lee says administrators work in a culture of silence. Resisting the brass's wishes can bring terrible consequences. "People's reaction to [the firings] was, 'Oooh, I'd better keep my mouth shut,'" Lee says. "But this is a university, where you want disagreement. It bothers me that this is happening."

Golden Panther gridiron as is (above) and as may be
Golden Panther gridiron as is (above) and as may be
Sergio Tigeria asks incoming freshmen to say it with him: Football is number one!
Sergio Tigeria asks incoming freshmen to say it with him: Football is number one!

The lawsuit alleges that Bliss and Parks attended one of several "FIU Football Forums" the university held during the early stages of the movement. At the often sparsely attended forums, administrators fielded questions from faculty and students about the cost of such a football program. Bliss and Parks spoke at a June 4, 1998, forum at the Wertheim Conservatory on the University Park Campus. Both men suggested that football shouldn't be the administration's highest priority. They argued that the soccer stadium needed renovation, that the tennis center's lights needed repair, and that the athletic department needed more softball fields.

Four days later Bliss and Parks were fired. "Henry stated that he was very upset and embarrassed about the comments that Mr. Bliss made at the public forum," the lawsuit alleges. "Mr. Henry claimed to have received calls from two vice presidents and two assistant vice presidents who were very upset about Mr. Bliss's comments."

Parks registered a similar response. "Henry stated that Mr. Parks's comments at the public forum were the reason for his termination," according to the lawsuit. "Henry stated that he had received several calls from unnamed persons claiming Mr. Parks was not a 'team player.'"

Bliss and Parks appealed their terminations, unsuccessfully. On October 25, 1998, they filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging, among other things, that the firings violated their First Amendment right to free speech.

Being a team player doesn't concern Lee. He says some professors aren't afraid to blow the whistle because they have something administrators don't: tenure. Yet few have publicly voiced concerns about football. Lee estimates that 85 percent of his colleagues oppose it, but believes most choose not to take a stand because they're either too busy or resigned to football being a foregone conclusion. Aswilda Haskins, president of FIU's faculty senate, says the group hasn't taken an official position on football, but believes that about half its members are against it.

Lee says the administration realizes there's discontent in the faculty ranks but hasn't yet tried to open a dialogue, and he faults administrators for failing to survey professors. "The strategy to establish football is not to involve the faculty," he claims. "It's not like they're doing football as a top-secret thing, but they're not seeking us out either."

Paul Gallagher admits that communication hasn't been as open as it might be. "There hasn't been as much involvement with the staff and faculty as maybe there should have been," he concedes. "We can't do anything about what's already done, only about what we're going to do. And I can assure you that we will be working more closely with them."

The televised Saturday-afternoon contests among the Bruins and Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish are Division I football, the highest level of college sports, played by the largest schools with the richest athletic departments. University of Miami plays at that level, as do Florida State and the University of Florida. The FIU Golden Panthers are slated to compete at the second tier of collegiate athletics, Division I-AA.

In a recent report, the National Collegiate Athletic Association found that 81 percent of all Division I-AA football programs operated at a deficit in 1997. About half of those lost more than $600,000. Last year the average attendance at a I-AA football game was a modest 8805 -- some 1200 fans fewer than FIU's most conservative projection for its inaugural season.

Several athletic directors say disappointing numbers and financial woes are a fact of life in the world of double-A football. Because the schools play at a lower level and have little name recognition, athletic departments lose out on gate and television revenues. In its first few years, for example, FIU could expect to tangle with regional I-AA cupcakes such as Appalachian State, Austin Peay State, the Virginia Military Institute, and Wofford College. None of these games will appear on national television. Ever.

"The early years were tough," relates Bobby Staub, associate athletic director at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB). "There you are in an empty stadium playing somebody nobody ever heard of, and you're asking, 'How did you get yourself into this? Is there any interest at all for this program? Good gracious, what are we doing?'"

The Carr report lists UAB, which played in I-AA until 1996, as operating a program that FIU's may eventually resemble. Despite averaging seven victories and almost 13,000 fans during its three years at that level, UAB ran annual debts "that were easily in six figures," Staub says. Last year the UAB athletic department, which has been incurring steeper expenses since upgrading to Division I, was a cool million in the red.

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