When a news story confirms our worst fears about how the worship of college sports has our priorities in a knot, it’s hardly time to stop the presses. This isn’t “man bites dog.” It’s more like the umpteenth chapter in a long book whose plot never seems to resolve itself.
Call me Ishmael … as in, perhaps, Kemal Ishmael, former defensive back at Central Florida (and now in the NFL), not the guy narrating Moby Dick.
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Or, to use a different example, it’s kind of like modern inventions. Nearly all the gadgets that make our lives simpler than that of our ancestors were invented in a roughly 50-year span from the late 19th to the early 20th century. All we’ve done since then is engineer improvements.
And we’re certainly engineering the heck out of our passion for the college game.
The Utah State Auditor’s Office released a study Tuesday showing how much money the state’s eight institutions of higher learning generate from NCAA sports and how much of that is subsidized in ways including student fees, tuition wavers, direct money from the schools, taxpayer gifts and other methods that, let’s face it, take money from more worthwhile things.
Last year, this subsidy equaled $56 million statewide, or 45 percent of total athletic revenues of $125 million. Because the figure is calculated on a fiscal year basis, it presumably includes the $1.5 million the state Legislature gave to Utah State University this year to help its football team attract better players through stipends.
To put this in some helpful perspective, it may be useful to take a trip back to the tail end of that period of invention I talked about earlier. Let’s go to Dec. 7, 1922. That was the night members of the American Association of University Professors at Northwestern University got together for a raucous meeting to consider several resolutions demanding changes to college football.
Near the top of the list was a demand to do away with paid coaches, who seemed to be commanding salaries out of line with their more educated counterparts teaching academic subjects. Students should have total control of the games, with captains calling all plays.
Also, season schedules were to be shortened, all financial aid used to lure players to a school was to be made public, and ticket prices were to be lowered to 25 to 50 cents in order “to do away with prevailing extravagant expenditures.”
The Chicago Tribune reported the next day that the debate raged for two hours before the faculty members narrowly voted to reject the demands. No doubt more than a few of them enjoyed spending Saturday afternoons cheering on the Wildcat 11 and voted with their hearts.
Those same ideas were bandied about at various universities during those years, with virtually no success. But it hardly would have mattered. In 1922, Ohio State built its current football stadium, attracting 71,138 fans for a game against Michigan that year. Northwestern followed in 1926 with a stadium seating a more modest 25,000, but then expanded it in 1927 to seat 47,000. Even at 50 cents a ticket, that would fund a lot of extravagance back then.
The past century has proven the enduring popularity of college sports, particularly football, as well as the futility of standing in its way. I would be a hypocrite if I said there was something wrong with this enthusiasm, having spent more than a few autumn Saturdays in the stands.
But I’m hardly a hypocrite to suggest that the emphasis on winning, to the point where tens of millions of dollars in non-football revenues are funneled into the game, has gotten out of hand.
Most students attend college to obtain a degree, and many of them have to borrow a lot of money for the privilege. Something about their student fees and tax dollars going to sports doesn’t seem right in that light.
State Auditor John Dougall said the purpose of the report was to provide information. It’s up to policymakers to decide whether the subsidies are appropriate.
That discussion may turn out similar to the way it did in 1922, but it needs to take place.