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Why Are Universities in the Professional Sports Business?

If you’re any kind of sports fan, you’ve most likely spent the last few months traipsing through story after story of improprieties occurring at the college sports level.  You’ve had (and this is an incomplete list that I’m making off the top of my head):

  • The Reggie Bush Scandal – Reggie Bush was forced to return his Heisman Trophy after being declared ineligible for the season he won the award while at University of Southern California; who forced to vacate those wins and records for 2 years.  The reason for his ineligibility – accepting money and favors (including rental-free lodging for his family) while attending USC. 
  • The Cam Newton Scandal – Rumors abounded that the father of Auburn QB Cam Newton was involved in a scheme to extort money from University of Southern Mississippi in order for his son to go play football there.  He instead ended up at Auburn University, who maintain that they knew nothing of it nor paid Newton anything.  Cam was actually found ineligible for a 24-hour window – it’s against the rules for anyone to ask for any financial benefit on behalf of players — before being reinstated by the NCAA.
  • The Ohio State Tattoo Scandal – 5 Ohio State University players were found to have traded jerseys and autographs for tattoos.  When informed of this, OSU coach Jim Tressell did not report it.  Instead, it was uncovered before Ohio State played in the Sugar Bowl.  Rather than suspending them there and then, the NCAA allowed the school to carry the suspensions into this upcoming season.  The school also suspended Tressell for two games – but he asked for it to go all the way to five to match his players’ punishment.
  • The Bruce Pearl Recruiting Scandal – University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl was found to have been improperly contacting potential recruits.  When he was put on probation, he did it again.  Pearl has already been fired from his job, but Tennessee may still face sanctions.
  • The Declan Sullivan Death Scandal – University of Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan was a camera assistant who recorded practices of the Notre Dame football team.  He was asked (forced? demanded? coerced?) into getting into a scissors-lift to record practices during a day where thunderstorms and gusts of winds were being warned.  The lift toppled and he fell to his death.  While the Dean has admitted responsibility, the school has recently caught fire for editing footage that was recorded that day that it submitted to OSHA because it claimed “proprietary rights” over its practices.
  • The Jim Calhoun Scandal – University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun was recently suspended for three games for recruiting violations.  As of this writing, there are new allegations arising against him of being aware of illegal payments made to players even as he leads his team into Houston for their Final Four clash against University of Kentucky, who are also being connected to improper behavior. 

And as I said, that’s stories that have come to light in just the last year.  I’m not including the many, many more that have happened the last few years and it’s likely that I’ve forgotten one or two from just this last year.

By the way, I hope you noticed two trends that are tied into this problem:  First of all, the majority of the issues arise in two sports – football and basketball.  There are the occasional scandals in the other collegiate sports but they are nowhere near as common as in these two.  And secondly, the scandals center around two key areas – recruiting talented athletes into coming to their school and keeping a competitive edge over their major rival schools.

The question that I can’t help but ask is…why?

The parroted answer often is that these sports – football in particular – help to fund the rest of a university’s athletic programs.  Everything from track and field, rowing and gymnastics to swimming, soccer and lacrosse cost money to put and they are sports that don’t make money.  To pay for their equipment, training, travel expenses and everything else, the universities need the income generated by football and basketball.

But that answer seems hollow when universities switch conferences to better align themselves for a shot at the big college football pot of gold.  This season, University of Nebraska and University of Colorado left the Big XII Conference while Texas Christian University moved from the Mountain West Conference to the Big East Conference.  How much more travelling will TCU’s lacrosse team have to do to play Rutgers University or University of Connecticut?  Wouldn’t it be cheaper, in these hard financial times, to look for schools nearer to one’s own and that way ensure that costs can be kept manageable?

That argument rings further hollow when you consider the cost of putting a top-level college football program runs in the millions of dollars.  Hiring one of the top level managers will cost you several million dollars a year alone – to the point that you have states where the head football coach is the highest paid public employee.  On top of that, add all the money spent on the coaching staff, on the top-level training facilities like fields and gyms, on the wining and dining of recruits and finally on the remodeling of stadiums in order to shoehorn another 10,000 fans in.  In the parlance of Patrick Ewing, “They make a lot, but they also spend a lot.”

None of this takes into account the millions of unreported “$500 handshakes” or back-room deals that occur to get a recruit to commit to a particular university or to keep that student eligible and happy at the university.  From the classic case of Southern Methodist University to more recent cases like the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five” basketball team and the suspensions of players like AJ Green and Dez Bryant or the dismissal of players at Auburn University. 

What you’re seeing is a system awash with dirty money, rampant with corruption and perfectly self-aware of how important it is for millions and millions of people who tune in every Saturday or every March to see its games.  For the chance to beat their hated rival, college fans will forgive just about every impropriety short of murder from their players or their coaches.  For a national championship, fans will forgive everything.

But again, I ask why.  Universities should not be in the business of professional sports.  That’s why we have professional sports leagues.  Universities should be in the business of educating their students.  Particularly when you consider that states are cutting programs and professors while hiking tuition costs all across the nation, it becomes disgusting to see how eager they become to shell millions to hire a coach who will be gone in a few years and may leave a scorched program behind him. 

At what point do we acknowledge that this situation is so screwed up that, to fix it, may involve blowing it up and starting from scratch again?     


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