Saturday, May 20, 2006

Keeping Our Collegiate Heads on Straight

You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do. ~Norman Juster

I love college sports. I'll watch a football game almost every night during the college season; I follow March madness as though I were Lewis Carroll's Hatter; I even enjoy women's softball. I say this just so you understand that I am not anti-sports. I am, however, pro-education, and I become ever more disturbed by people's priorties when it comes to colleges and sports.

The personalities on the afternoon drive time program on the radio station I wrote of the other day seem to have the attitude that colleges are in the sports business. They can't understand the NCAA setting standards for academic performance. They're ticked off because some high school ace isn't going to have the grades to get into uniform this year. Worst of all, they can't even understand the fundamental purpose of an educational institution.

As if I needed to have this brought home to me, the other day these ignoramuses began to complain because Birmingham Southern was considering going from Division I athletics to Division III. The Internet is a big place, so perhaps I'd better explain what that is.
College sports have various levels. Division I is where the big dogs play, normally. There are allowed to give out a lot of athletic scholarships and have big budgets for football and basketball. Division II has smaller schools, with lesser budgets and fewer athletic scholarships. Division III has no athletic scholarships and small athletic budgets.

In football, there is also a Division I-AA, which has schools that can't compete with the big guys but want to spend more money than the other divisions. In addition, they get to play Division I schools more often than than Division II schools. Division III schools almost never play outside their level (most of this is done with Division II schools). Division I-AA and Division II schools that play the likes of Alabama and Ohio State are also known as “cupcakes.”

“Cupcakes” are willing to go to the big school's stadium and get beaten up in front of 80,000 fans because the big school will pay them anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 per game. The “cupcake” gets, essentially, its entire athletic budget paid for. The big school gets an easy win.

Birmingham Southern has about 1500 students. I can't imagine what it's doing in Division I, aside from getting beaten up. They do complete well in basketball and baseball, but with a small student body, many of whom are not from the area, they have little local alumni support at games, giving them small crowds. So here they are, shelling out big bucks in the form of scholarships, which they pay for by getting bombed by bigger schools. Apparently someone has seen the light, because their recently hired president is from a Division III school. Presumably, he has an idea of what the school's actual purpose should be.

He can also read a budget report. The school is losing money, in part due to increased expenditures for athletics. Division I, even for a potential cupcake, is not cheap. His logic is that, being an educational institution, the school's focus should be on staying in the education business, not to act as a breeding ground for future NFL players.

It's not like Division III has no athletics. Division III is what collegiate sports use to be about. Sports are an extra-curricular activity, a way to have fun and take a break from studying. The crowds are small and mostly made up of students. Years ago, when I attended a Division III school, students got into athletic events for free. I went to a lot of football games, even getting to go down to the sideline and take pictures of the teams during the game. A friend of mine went to Ohio State. He got to pay a fee to have the right to buy a ticket to Buckeyes games. The closest he ever got to be able to take a picture of the players was from a med-school dorm that was at one end of the stadium. You can't do that any more, because OSU closed off that end to ensure there were no free views of games.

Division I is business sports. Division III is fun sports.

And it's often very good athletics. These guys (and girls) are playing because they love playing the game. There are rivalries just as intense as Auburn-Alabama. No one wants to lose, so they give their best shot all the time. That's more than I can say for, say, Auburn when they're matched up against The Citadel.

Yet, the sports talk geniuses can't understand how a school would think of leaving the mansions of Division I to slum with the little guys of Division III. Apparently, the potential loss of a punching-bag opponent for Alabama is more than they can stand. All they could talk about was the poor coaching staff and how they were getting so screwed. Well, they're still getting paid, and they can always get other jobs (Division I coaches are all gypsies anyway).

The important thing is that Birmingham Southern, if they go this route, is affirming their role as an educational institution, not fodder for the football factories. One of the canards of major college athletics is that the money schools are pouring into football programs helps pay for all the other sports. Big-time college football does generate tons of money, but it also spends huge sums. Auburn is paying so many former coaches that could start another set of teams in each major sport, if they wanted to. The big schools are always raising money for state-of-the-art weight rooms, new practice facilities, and new stadiums. What if some of that money was raised for academic scholarships instead?

Despite all this money pouring in from football, Auburn and Alabama plead poverty to the legislature every year. A few years ago, when the legislature had the gall to suggest that more money needed to be spent on elementary and high school education, the big A's lost their collective little minds. Despite having spent vast sums to increase the seating of their stadiums in recent times (being sure to add high-priced sky boxes), they screamed they could not live without additional state funding. Educational funds couldn't be shifted downward without doing their programs irreparable harm.

These are schools with million-dollar (or close to it) head coaches in at least two sports and some assistant coaches making six figures. They extort money from their fans by making them make contributions (to the athletic program, of course) for the right to be able to buy better seats. And, tuitions are through the roof.

Schools need to get their priorities in order. The college system was not created to act as a farm system for the NFL and NBA. It's supposed to be there to provide us with leaders who have received the kind of education that will help them make good decisions.

If the college leaders can't make good decisions, though, how can they give us graduates who will?

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