Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Scholars and Athletes Without Scholarships

When Birmingham Southern gave up athletic scholarships, freshman applications increased, more students tried intercollegiate sports and alumni contributions soared.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now a tale of athletics and academics and an Alabama school that said good-bye to big-time college sports. Here's commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: The championship college bowl games this Monday made millions of dollars for the two teams in their conferences, just as millions more have been made from the myriad other Bowls. This only encourages the myth, however, that big-time college sport is a financial bonanza. It isn't, of course. Only a handful of universities make any money.

Usually it is more like this - the way it was last spring in Alabama when Jim Stephens, the chairman of the board of trustees at Birmingham Southern College, came to see the president, David Pollick.

Birmingham Southern is a fine small private school, too small to field a football team, but it was successful enough in other sports in Division I. Chairman Stephens wanted to make sure that what he was reading was really true - that the school was offering a total of 116 full athletic scholarships at about $30,000 a piece, a total of $3.5 million, while the college awarded outright exactly one full academic scholarship. Yes, President Pollick said, that was true.

So the board and the president at Birmingham Southern did the unthinkable. They voted their college out of the business of athletic entertainment. They dropped Birmingham Southern out of the glory of Division I down to Division III where students play sports because they want to, not because they're paid performers.

Oh, there was a firestorm. Indeed, Alabama may be the epicenter of the unholy worship of college sport. They talk about how much religion matters in the South, says President Pollick, but no, I'd rather face God than football.

But the Birmingham Southern faculty was almost totally for the switch. The vast majority of alumni approved. And yes, alumni contributions have increased substantially since the controversial decision was made. Freshman applications are also up. So much more money will now be freed to go to, my heavens, good students, not good athletes.

One of the great arguments against giving up athletic scholarships was that it would damage campus diversity, i.e. there go the black athletes. Well, under the old system the freshman class was six percent African-American. This year it was 14 percent.

It's a question of where you're looking, says President Pollick. Birmingham Southern, you see, started looking more in classrooms than on playing fields. And, oh yes, this too. With the money saved from scholarships, a football team has been added at Birmingham Southern as well as four other new sports, male and female. Almost twice as many students will actually play intercollegiate sports than they did before.

So, you see, giving up athletic scholarships at Birmingham Southern greatly improved - yes - athletics at Birmingham Southern.

MONTAGNE: Frank Deford is senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford