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Editorial: More answers needed on football upgrade

The dismal first year of the University of Massachusetts’ participation in a higher-level football league has given plenty of ammunition to faculty members and students who question the wisdom of the upgrade.

UMass and the state spent $8.22 million to support the program this year, after providing $3.16 million to football two years ago, according to a study by a Faculty Senate committee.

The team drew an average of 10,901 fans to the five games at Gillette Stadium, whose capacity is 68,756. Only 6,385 turned out for the last one. The expectation was that crowds would be larger.

The Minutemen lost all their games at Gillette and their season record was 1-11. Opponents outscored them 482-152.

Amherst-area businesses, especially restaurants and hotels, say they saw a steep decline in customers on Saturdays last fall.

The Faculty Senate meets next on Jan. 31, and we hope it continues to ask tough questions. It should request details of the $34.5 million plan to start construction in March of a 55,000-square-foot fieldhouse near Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium and a 5,800-square-foot press box. The Faculty Senate report estimates that the annual debt service on this project will be $2 million.

It should find out, for example, if this expense can be justified by the prospect of having one football game a year between 2014 and 2016 played in Amherst, and what will happen after that. The Senate should find out what the benefits are of the move from the Football Championship Subdivision to the more prestigious Football Bowl Subdivision — such as television revenues, national recognition and increased alumni giving — and ask whether they outweigh the costs.

We sympathize with students who worry that they’ll be paying more for tuition and getting less in financial aid while UMass is showering money on its football team. Faculty members who say they have trouble getting funding for graduate assistantships, travel to conferences or even repairs for campus buildings are justified in their concern over the extra cost of football.

“The reality is that football schools who move up a division almost always lose even more money,” said Daniel Fulks, a professor who has spent 15 years researching the issue. His comment appeared in a recent story in The New York Times.

Big-time football has not exactly been crowned in glory recently. The scandal at Penn State and the increasing evidence that banging heads on the football field can result in permanent brain injury — is that surprising? — have cast a pall over the sport.

We are also concerned about the process by which former UMass Chancellor Robert Holub approved the football upgrade in the waning days of his tenure. Professor Max Page, co-author of the Faculty Senate report, says that UMass should not “throw good money after bad” by moving ahead with the additions at Alumni Stadium.

We think UMass should thoroughly examine this decision and listen to the dissident voices in the Faculty Senate. And taxpayers should ask what role football should play at a public university.

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