Note to FIU President Mitch Maidique: Stay in your league
By Michael Lewis
Dear Mitch, I wanted you to know why I won't be in the stadium Nov. 11 when Florida International University plays its next home football game.
It's not that I'm busy. Nor do I fear for my safety — the stadium will be well-policed, and players seldom enter the stands.
But though I've been active in FIU support groups and still am, I've long believed that a fine urban university is stepping out of its league by trying to be a football powerhouse, a concern heightened by mayhem with the University of Miami.
Miami long has been criticized for the thuggery of players who are students in name only. President Donna Shalala may be powerless to put her program into perspective although Dean Colson, chairman of the UM trustees, wrote last week, "I am convinced that the benefits of a strong Division 1 athletic program outweigh the negatives, but I am probably not as sure of that conviction today as I was just a little over a week ago."
But Mitch, unlike the University of Miami, FIU is a newcomer to football and can still shift course.
In 2003, when FIU decided to dump a successful soccer program to help fund big-time football, I quoted your then-athletic director, Rick Mello: "We, as a university, have decided to use athletics as a vehicle to enhance campus life, draw alumni back, guarantee outside revenue and increase media exposure, and football gives us the best opportunity to do those things."
Football did in fact get FIU increased media exposure, Mitch, though not what you wanted.
I'm not big on combat movies, so I haven't watched the numerous television replays of the fighting between the teams two weeks ago. But I seem to be in the minority. They made national headlines. Take this start of a San Diego sports column:
"Florida International University? Never heard of it. The University of Miami? Definitely heard of its TV show — "CSI: UMiami.'"
Do a Google search for "Florida International University football fighting," and you'll find 35,200 references — almost exactly one per student. Our report on repairing images after the mayhem was the top-read story last week at miamitodaynews.com, where users aren't looking for sports scores.
So football has put FIU on the radar — for violence.
It's a hot topic locally, too. I had lunch Friday with three of the four county officers who run the Police Athletic League. Embarrassingly, they had a group of youngsters at the FIU-UM game. They used the fighting to teach the kids, who come from underprivileged homes, about inappropriate behavior. That's really setting an example — the wrong example.
That's a shame, Mitch, because FIU is becoming widely known for academics. You have a law school, are headed for a medical school and seem to be doing everything else right. Your graduates fill key roles in every Miami business of note.
Mitch, it's not too late to scale back your football program to an appropriate level, where the players are truly student athletes rather than would-be National Football League stars.
There is precedent. Another urban university, the University of Chicago, one of our nation's academic gems, was a founder of the Big 10 conference in 1896 and was a football power of note. Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy in 1935 and was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first pro draft.
But in 1939, Chicago reversed field and ousted big-time football, reviving it in 1969 as an extracurricular program. The university Web site says the team is made up of amateur athletes who are professional students.
Today, the Chicago Maroons play such powerhouses as Concordia, Eureka and Elmhurst (which this year beat Chicago handily). I doubt pros scout the games, but no doubt a fair number of players wind up with Ph.Ds.
Mitch, a Google search of "University of Chicago football fighting" returns 251 items, not 35,200, yet its football program is a century older than yours. And despite lack of media exposure to Chicago football, alumni donations are huge. Academics, not athletics, brought the money.
In 1999, when FIU quietly was surveying attitudes toward a football program, I asked in this space:
"Why in the world would we shift FIU into a league that puts football players atop the campus hierarchy? A league where the top news from the university is Saturday's score and which players have been arrested for what offenses?
"Other universities adequately fulfill that role — but only FIU can be our urban university for Greater Miami. The university has done a fine job at that, getting better all the time. It shouldn't step out of its league."
Mitch, that's still the case. Do what you can do best and let someone else battle with powerhouses like Alabama and the University of Miami.
When FIU is playing in a league with the University of Chicago and its academic peers — when FIU's athletes are all professional students and not streetfighters — I'll be in the stands for the first home game. Make it soon.