BATON ROUGE, La. — America, meet John Bel Edwards.
He’s the man who has been Louisiana’s governor for exactly one month and in a televised speech Thursday night said there might not be college football in Louisiana this fall.
Let me be clear: LSU and other state universities will field football teams in 2016 and every year after that until the apocalypse. With his comments, Edwards succeeded in drawing attention to Louisiana’s massive budget crisis, but in so doing, used a scare tactic that could have an immeasurable negative ripple effect.
During his speech, Edwards spelled out what many in the state already knew: Louisiana is facing a nearly $1 billion budget deficit this fiscal year and a $2 billion deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1. As a result, massive cuts to higher education and healthcare in Louisiana have been instituted to loosen the budget squeeze. In asking for legislative assistance with his proposals, Edwards suggested some campuses would face financial bankruptcy, leading to layoffs and the cancellation of classes.
Then, he hit us with the zinger:
“If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student-athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.”
Imagine a world without Saturday Night in Death Valley. No Golden Band from Tigerland. No Mike the Tiger. (Well, the current Mike refuses to enter his trailer for his customary lap around the field, so we really wouldn’t be missing him any more than we already are.) No Les Miles eating grass.
LSU closing its doors is not an option and never will be. For Edwards to suggest as much seriously calls into question his good judgment. That sound you hear is of high school students enamored with that idea of four years of scenic views on a culturally diverse campus ripping up their collective application. Why would any parent encourage their child to apply to LSU when the state’s highest-ranking official can’t give assurances that there will be classes next semester? It is also another set of objections LSU coaches in all sports will have to answer on the recruiting trail.
Aside from the short-sighted lunacy of Edwards’ scare tactic, there are two relevant issues relate to the budget crisis that have effected and will effect LSU athletics. Edwards announced the state was halting the state’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). The program was designed to help the state’s brightest high school students attend state unvieristies by offering free tuition. As of 2014, 53 percent of LSU’s enrollment consisted of TOPS recipients. For scholarship-restricted sports, TOPS gives LSU a leg up. Baseball, for example, which is allotted 11.7 scholarships, could stretch that money by having TOPS cover tuition and using scholarship money for fees, books and room and board.
The other effect is a big reason Les Miles is still the LSU football coach. Knowing he was preparing for a bare-knuckled budget fight, LSU System president F. King Alexander balked at the cost to buyout Miles and his staff for fear of public perception in the face of a budget disaster. How would it look for Alexander to appear before the Legislature, hat in hand, when his athletic department spent $30 million to fire and hire a football coach?
The reality is that LSU athletics is not part of the higher-education problem in Louisiana. It has actually been a part of the solution. LSU is one of only seven athletic departments in the nation that does not receive a single dollar of state money. In fact, in the past five years, LSU athletics has transferred more than $43 million to the university as part of a funds transfer policy approved in 2012.
Athletics providing financial support to the university? Imagine that. Actually, you don’t have to because LSU does it.
It is only too bad that Louisiana’s new governor, in trying to cut through political red tape, stretched miles more of it with one ill-thought, poorly worded sentence.
(You can follow Matt Moscona on Twitter @MattMoscona)
(Feature photo COURTESY STATE OF LOUISIANA)
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