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Something Must Be Done
Rick Telander
October 02, 1989
By allowing big-time college football to flourish in its present form, the nation's universities are shamelessly exploiting the players and debasing themselves by perpetuating the myth of the 'amateur' student-athlete. Though the roots of this crisis are complex, the solutions are surprisingly simple
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October 02, 1989

Something Must Be Done

By allowing big-time college football to flourish in its present form, the nation's universities are shamelessly exploiting the players and debasing themselves by perpetuating the myth of the 'amateur' student-athlete. Though the roots of this crisis are complex, the solutions are surprisingly simple

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Frey's article cited a dozen studies, covering hundreds of institutions over a 50-year period, that largely revealed variations on that same theme. Frey makes a rather obvious observation: "If athletic programs are having difficulty raising their own monies, it seems incredulous [sic] to expect these same activities to produce funds for the institution."

Still, one always hears that football fans will become donors to the academic side of the school once they take that autumn walk across campus and see the library and classrooms and statues of scholars. On this matter Frey quotes Richard Conklin, assistant vice-president for university relations at Notre Dame, who says, "We have had extensive experience trying to turn athletic interests of 'subway alumni' to development purposes—and we have had no success. There is no evidence that the typical, nonalumnus athletic fan of Notre Dame has much interest in its educational mission."

In his Chronicle of Higher Education article, Lederman quotes Warren Heemann, then vice-president for communications and development at Georgia Tech: "So much of the big money for colleges and universities comes from bequests and other large gifts. The vagaries of the football team, its ups and downs, will not affect those big gifts. People who make big gifts do so in support of the academic, instructional program, not a sports team."

Lederman also cites Roger Olson, senior vice-president for university relations at Southern Cal, and Notre Dame's Conklin, both of whom agree with Heemann. "The bulk of our fund-raising would be intact with or without athletics," says Olson. "There isn't any correlation between giving at Notre Dame and athletic success," says Conklin, pointing to coach Gerry Faust's unsuccessful—at least by Notre Dame's standards—five-year tenure. "We raised more money during the Faust era [1981-85] than during any other period in the university's history. What does that tell you?"

What it tells us is something that has been demonstrated again and again: Big-time sport and support for learning have almost nothing to do with one another. At Tulane, for instance, donations rose by $5 million in 1986, a year after the university dropped basketball following a point-shaving scandal. At Wichita State, enrollment climbed by 200 in '87, and annual donations to the university nearly doubled—to $26 million—during a year in which football was eliminated while a fund-raising drive was under way. (Of course, a winning season can coincide with an increase in giving; private donations at North Carolina State grew by 30%—$9.4 million to $12.27 million—from July 1, 1983, to June 30, 1984, after the Wolfpack won the NCAA basketball title.)

I talked to Frey about all this. I knew what he had written in various journals, but I wondered what it's like to teach at a place that seems to exist only as a front for basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin' Rebels. Frey laughed and said, "It's the same as it is at many other places. When you're a relatively new institution—we're only about 30 years old—or you're relatively obscure, like, say, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, then sometimes you decide that the way to get recognition and financial attention is to push your sports program. When a school is on the make like that, sometimes you can produce a good image-return—temporarily. But if your sports team is successful, you draw the attention of the NCAA, and you get scrutinized, and you get into trouble. Then you've got a negative image. We're sick of it here. And you know what—a lot of schools with big sports programs are sick of the negative images they've gotten."

So why do college administrators still push for athletic success as if it provided some sort of pot-of-gold payoff to the university? I marveled when I saw recently that Senator Bennett Johnston of Louisiana said that he would introduce legislation to prevent college athletes from signing pro football or basketball contracts before their classes graduate. In other words, he wanted to make athletes indentured servants to their universities. His proposal was, to my mind, so patently illegal that it was hard to figure out his justification for even considering such a bill. Then it appeared. Johnston said that his bill was inspired by speculation that LSU basketball star Chris Jackson, an All-America last season as a freshman, might quit school to turn pro. The senator wanted his trained dog to continue performing for him while bringing in all that alleged revenue to the coffers of LSU.

Oh, my, the deeper we get, the darker it gets. In truth, the purported money-making aspect of athletics goes back to the 1850s, when boosters—businessmen who "boosted" college programs with funding—decided that one way to promote their communities as optimistic, growth-oriented places worthy of political and capital investment was to support the athletic programs of their local colleges. Boosters quickly gained control, albeit often hidden, of athletic departments because of the money they could supply to, or withhold from, the programs. These men convinced the universities that what was good for the athletic department was also in the best interest of the school. When it became obvious that this was no longer the case, if it ever had been, the administrators of the schools felt they didn't have enough power—real power lay in the hands of the trustees or state legislators—to make any changes in the existing athletic structure. Either that or they liked things the way they were.

Mostly, though, they were, and are, chicken. The amazing thing is that the money-worshiping college presidents won't even attack their football programs with the ammunition that's already in the barrels of their guns: The football team doesn't make money for the school. They have to know this. The reports I have cited should be no secret to college administrators. I mean, who reads The Chronicle of Higher Education, if not higher educators?

How did this scam called big-time college football get started? And for whom are we perpetuating it? Certainly not for the players or, in most cases, for the faculty. From what I have seen, I can tell you the games are not played for the students, either. I saw so many Ohio State students hawking their tickets to a Buckeye home game two years ago that I wondered if student tickets were issued by the school simply as a way to bolster its undergraduates' incomes. At an Oklahoma-Nebraska game in Lincoln, I had almost no sense that I was attending a college event, only that thousands of adults can descend on a campus and over-run it like so many bright red locusts.

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