Try teams semiautonomous from colleges

Collegiate athletics distract from academic pursuits. The teams could be just loosely associated.

Posted: September 04, 2011

Robert Benne

is director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society and author of Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics

'I am not persuaded that the provision of mass entertainment has any place in the life of a great university," said Robert Maynard Hutchins, the late president and chancellor of the University of Chicago.

Hutchins took Chicago's football program out of the Big Ten in 1939, several years after its Jay Berwanger became the first Heisman Trophy winner. He clearly perceived that the big business of entertainment - the provision of football and basketball games to a mass audience - was in contradiction with the goals of a great university - teaching and research. The two have very little to do with each other. He saw that trying to put the two together would undermine the integrity of the university. It would inflate what should be a secondary extracurricular activity into a gigantic business that would soon overshadow and subvert the traditional goals of the university.

Hutchins was right. Who really believes that the majority of players in Division I football or basketball are really attending the university for an education? Many players, when interviewed, cannot put a coherent sentence together. (Why are such players interviewed at all? They rarely get beyond the predictable cliches that communicate absolutely nothing newsworthy. One could say much the same thing about interviews with coaches.)

Graduation rates at many football and basketball factories are low. If one included only graduates of moderately challenging academic programs, the rates would be much lower. Elimination of academic cheating would drive them even lower. If the better players don't flunk out, many leave early for professional opportunities.

Huge amounts of money - often skimmed from student activities fees - are spent on football and basketball scholarships, dorms, training rooms, dining facilities, practice fields in separate buildings, tutors, etc. Coaches are paid much more than the president of the university. Yet even this does not suffice. The need to glorify dear old Siwash U. leads to inevitable under-the-table gifts and enticements to the very best athletes. Is anyone surprised that such activities were recently exposed at the University of Miami? Isn't it a bit odd that star players coming from poor backgrounds drive luxury SUVs on campus? Scores more of such shenanigans are waiting to be discovered.

Some elite schools took Hutchins' advice and de-emphasized football and basketball programs. But other large universities - especially the public ones - got involved with mass entertainment to a degree that Hutchins could never have imagined. University football and basketball programs are now a huge business that serves to entertain the masses and to provide a vast minor-league system for the NFL and NBA. They also bizarrely define the reputation of a university.

But I am afraid we are stuck. It is too late to undo the connection of such entertainment with the life of American universities. However, short of de-emphasizing athletics to the Division III level, there may be a better way to preserve the integrity of the university and yet have our Saturday entertainment:

Decouple athletic programs from the academic apparatus of the university by making them free-standing athletic clubs. The clubs would be supported by donors, and players would be paid what tuition costs at the university. Those who wanted to be students could use their money for tuition. Those who wanted the cash could take it. Pay would be limited to the tuition level of the university, something similar to what a minor-leaguer in baseball is paid. The sumptuous surroundings would continue, but they would be paid from the club's treasury, not from the university's budget or student fees. The club would be responsible for the stadium or arena.

Such an arrangement would allow the entertainment to go on without the dishonest charade that the athletic programs have something to do with academic life. And there is a precedent. The world-class rowing teams of Oxford and Cambridge are clubs bearing the university's name, but they are not owned or run by the school.

Even so, I feel far more comfortable with the honest arrangements in Division III, where the students are really students, the coaches are paid less than the faculty, and the athletics can be excellent.

Robert Benne's ( claim to athletic fame is that he was the Midland College (Nebraska) losing quarterback for four straight years to Hastings College QB Tom Osborne, who went on to coach one of the major mass-entertainment ventures of the Midwest. Go, Huskers!