SI Vault
Frank Deford
July 28, 1975
College sport is in danger of being killed, a victim of murderously high costs. But Athletic Director Don Canham peddles "enjoyment" as he once did socks and has little trouble footing Michigan's whopping bill
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July 28, 1975

No Death For A Salesman

College sport is in danger of being killed, a victim of murderously high costs. But Athletic Director Don Canham peddles "enjoyment" as he once did socks and has little trouble footing Michigan's whopping bill

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If intercollegiate athletics were sold on Wall Street, IA would be down 100 points and the Securities and Exchange Commission would have suspended trading. Compared to intercollegiate athletics, New York City is on Easy Street. At a time when private colleges are folding right and left, when almost any teaching vacancy draws hundreds of applications, when the glorious dormitories built to accommodate the baby boom stand empty and unpaid for, when the taxpayers and the legislatures won't put out a penny more for science laboratories or classroom light bulbs—well, where do you think that leaves intercollegiate athletics, games?

Not only are these especially trying times for academia, but college sport has unique problems. Women, ignored for so long, have demanded a piece of the action and seemingly have been given half of it by the Title IX provisions laid down by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Considering how they can't even pay the men's bills, many members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association think that women have obtained 50% of nothing. Reflect on the problems.

The pros have robbed colleges of fans, revenue and attention, and, at least in basketball, of star players as well.

Previously, athletic departments had what they referred to as "the student body" in their pockets. The student body, a whimpering little Milquetoast, was supposed to fork over student fees to support the big-time sports played by an elite of hired hands known euphemistically as "student-athletes" (although, as Gwen Verdon used to sing, "with the emphasis on the latter"). Saturdays, the student body was supposed to throng the dilapidated stadium and pay more money to cheer its heroes on. Now, the student body would rather watch the Kansas City Chiefs play Sundays on TV, and with its student fees wants recreational opportunities of its own: tennis courts, ice rinks, bowling alleys, intramurals, and so on.

Recruiting, a damn-fool apparatus to begin with, is now completely out of hand and threatening to turn into a Doomsday Machine. Everybody cheats; well, everybody-but-me cheats, and gee, I might have to start cheating soon because everybody-but-me cheats.

The stadiums built in the 1920s are falling apart, and they can't be patched with summer jobs for linebackers at a buck-fifty an hour—unions!

There are not enough rock stars and ice shows in creation to play in the new arena and help pay off the interest (never mind reduce the principal) on that building, which was constructed in 1967 for $22.5 million when the Dow-Jones was fast on its way to the elusive 3,000 barrier.

Also, as always, you're supposed to win every game, no matter what.

Over this debris presides the beloved athletic director, who all too often is what he traditionally was: a wonderful old fellow, so dang beloved that everyone puts up with his pipe and his run-on nostalgia, which consists mostly of Pudge Heffelfinger stories. He is, of course, the former football coach, dean of gridiron mentors in his area, which is why his office is decorated entirely with team photos, half-inflated pigskins with winning scores against State U. painted on them, and goalpost slivers. When not smoking his pipe and doing more choruses of the Pudge Heffelfinger stories, the beloved athletic director spends mornings drinking coffee, afternoons cheering on the wrestling team and spare moments calling up other beloved athletic directors to schedule football games for 1997. Soon it is quarter to four and time to call it another day.

Because of these factors, something like 90% of all U.S. college athletic departments are losing money. And every indication is that it will get worse before it gets lots worse. The panic is on. Take your pick: Vermont has given up football, the first state university to do so. Big colleges like Syracuse and Kansas State have dropped some sports altogether and eliminated scholarships in others. And the Ivy League, richest of them all, has cut back on coaching staffs, reduced trips and training meals and, just like everybody else, been caught cheating.

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