The Times on Sports and Education

August 9th, 2011

When the New York Times quotes from South Park to address the pathetic state of higher education and athletics, you know you’re in for a treat.

 In a recent “South Park” episode, the scheming Eric Cartman character, in plantation owner’s garb, drops in on a college president for some advice on how to avoid paying slaves. (“Stu-dent ath-o-leets! Oh, that is brilliant, suh!”)

It’s never a good sign when you’re getting satirized on “South Park.”

So what does the Times propose? Well, focusing on education.

They might start by declaring freshmen ineligible for intercollegiate sports to encourage them to focus on their schoolwork. They could take the scholarship status of athletes out of the hands of coaches, who have the power to cut off financial aid to a player with a 4.0 grade point average but a bum knee. Most of all, they could place strict limits on full-contact football practices, a step recently taken by the Ivy League, so that the minds they’re developing in the classroom aren’t being hastened toward dementia on the field.

This is just the beginning. The real strides would come when universities declared a truce in the arms race of new athletics facilities and agreed to cap the soaring pay of coaches and their staffs. Earlier this summer, John Calipari signed a contract extension with Kentucky that guarantees him $3.8 million a year — nearly 10 times what the president of an average state university makes.

Better yet, why not compel football and basketball programs to contribute a modest percentage of their revenues to their universities’ primary mission, education? These programs are heavily dependent on their schools. They leverage their brands, use their facilities and take up more than their share of their administrations’ time. (How do you think the Ohio State president, E. Gordon Gee, spent his summer? Reviewing course offerings, or dealing with the Jim Tressel mess?)

Would college teams still be popular without all of the money spent?

to get an education.

More to the point, these critics are missing the real allure of college sports. Students, alumni and local boosters were filling college football stadiums long before the building boom of 20,000-square-foot “strength complexes.” Alabama fans don’t care if their tailback does a 4.3 40 or a 4.6 40, as long as Alabama beats Auburn. As Joe Paterno likes to say, it’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters, not the one on the back.

We all want to see great players do great things, at any level of sports. But that’s not the only reason we watch.

I don’t think this is realistic, and would go in the other direction. Just turn it into a real business with paid athletes, and drop the charade.