LSU football will go on, but Louisiana's college sports still face major concerns

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Let’s be clear about one thing: LSU will play football in 2016 and beyond, no matter what Louisiana’s governor implied last week. That does not, however, mean the state’s college athletes are in the clear.

Critics say newly inaugurated Gov. John Bel Edwards used overstated scare tactics in Thursday’s televised remarks, in which he said athletes at the state’s public colleges are at risk of losing their eligibility because of Louisiana’s budget crisis.

Maybe those critics are correct, but Edwards’ intention was clearly to alarm the public about the gaping hole in Louisiana’s budget -- a shortfall projected to be as large as $2 billion next year. Even if his speech was full of worst-case scenarios, many of which will not come to pass, this is a serious issue that will absolutely affect college athletics in the state.

If the state legislature -- now in the opening days of a special session to address a budget shortfall of $943 million for this year -- fails to close the budget hole, the LSU main campus will run out of money by April 30, Edwards said.

“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,” Edwards said before getting to the most publicized portion of his 15-minute address. “That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.”

That’s about the point where people lost their minds. A flood of stories and half-baked sports talk conversations soon followed and turned a complicated matter into a series of soundbites about where Leonard Fournette will play football after LSU shutters its program.

It’s absurd, of course. Edwards, who received a law degree from LSU, knows where his bread is buttered, and so do the state legislators. Mardi Gras is about the only thing Louisianans love more than football, so decimating LSU’s program would surely be a one-way ticket out of the statehouse.

Rest assured, they will scrape together the necessary funds between now and when this special session ends March 9, two days after Les Miles’ football team opens spring practice. That said, small-sport athletes at LSU and those attending other state schools with resources far less plentiful than those at an SEC powerhouse will not be able to breathe so easily.

Take, for instance, the NCAA tournament-contending baseball and softball programs at LSU and nearby Louisiana-Lafayette. While football and basketball teams' cushy NCAA scholarship allotments (85 full scholarships for football, 15 for women’s basketball and 13 for men’s basketball) easily cover their roster needs, baseball and softball are not so fortunate.

NCAA Division I baseball programs divide 11.7 full scholarships among rosters of players numbering in the 30s. Softball programs divvy up 12 scholarships, and other non-revenue sports contend with similar roster management concerns.

Many of those Louisiana programs are still able to thrive, in large part because of the existence of the TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) scholarship initiative. Because it offers free tuition and, in some cases, spending money to in-state students who meet certain academic standards, TOPS creates a clear competitive advantage.

Roughly half of LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri’s roster hails from outside Louisiana, but he can load his roster with talented Louisianans who receive TOPS assistance, alongside premium out-of-state prospects.

That advantage will disappear unless the legislature finds $233 million to keep TOPS in place as is in its upcoming regular session. Otherwise, many state-school athletes -- not to mention all the low- and middle-income students who depend on the program to stay in college -- will suffer potentially crushing blows.

Again, count on the legislature to find money to keep the program afloat. TOPS is one of the state’s most popular budget line items, and legislators who fail to fund it adequately will likely have hell to pay. However, it's likely there are changes coming to TOPS, as the state is struggling to keep up with the program’s ever-rising expenditures.

Summer school sessions might also be on the chopping block at some Louisiana universities, which would make life more difficult for the many athletes who use courses in those offseason months to maintain eligibility. There are also quality of life concerns for athletes and other students at Louisiana’s state colleges, which rival recruiters could easily use against the state’s athletic programs.

Higher education and healthcare are two of the most vulnerable budget categories in Louisiana, and both areas have been slashed in recent years. Louisiana colleges have lost 55 percent of their state funding over the past seven years, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate. That represents “the most severe disinvestment in higher education of any other state during that period of time.” Even in the best-case scenario, Louisiana’s college presidents know they will soon absorb more severe cuts.

Those issues add up, and they will certainly affect future student-athletes’ experiences at Louisiana colleges. King Football will always be safe, which is the main thing some Louisianans will care about as the legislature slogs through this special session, but all is not well, even if Miles’ Tigers are able to take the field against Wisconsin in the Sept. 3 season opener.

Much like the disappearing coastline Louisiana is struggling to protect, the state’s colleges are on shaky ground, and they are crumbling more each year.