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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Intercollegiate Athletics and You

Move over Bob, because this time there's a whole commission studying intercollegiate athletics, and it's called the Knight Commission. And no, Myles Brand isn't on it, neither is Murray Sperber, former Indiana English professor, recurring Bob Knight critic, and author of a book called "Beer and Circus," an unscientific study as to why "big-time" colleges offer robust football and basketball programs and turn a blind eye toward partying -- so as to anesthetize the kids from realizing that they are getting a bad education. And neither, for that matter, are the
Washington Post reporters who discovered that many of the Top 25 football teams actually give their players academic credit for playing college football (Rick Reilly has a fun piece on this topic in this week's SI). And no, this commission doesn't answer the riddle as to why it's okay for undergraduate newspaper stringers to make money writing stories for the wire services while on campus but it's not okay for Jeremy Bloom, the erstwhile Colorado football player, to play football for the Buffs and not accept endorsement money because he's an outstanding professional extreme snowboarder (or something like that). And finally, this commission doesn't even begin to approach the question as to whether JFK was really killed by a single bullet.

No, this commission had a less lofty goal -- studying whether intercollegiate athletics had an effect on alumni donations or attracting better students. And the survey said: a resounding no.

So forget the Flutie Factor, which either is an aberration or an urban legend, depending on how you look at it. BC didn't become the Stanford of the East because of Doug Flutie's gridiron heroics 20 years ago, and neither has Duke displaced Harvard as the place many elite students want to attend because Coach K has turned the hoop program into a dynasty to be admired and emulated by all. Florida State hasn't received more alumni donations because Bobby Bowden has had a great run there, and it's unlikely that Princeton raised more money because it's men's lacrosse program has won 6 NCAA titles in the past 14 years. Ditto for the baseball schools, the ice hockey schools, the women's curling schools or the schools that sponsor first-rate rodeo teams. And it's probably unlikely that a student wanting to attend a Virginia, Duke or Carolina turned those schools down in favor of Bowden's beloved FSU because he wanted to go to a school with a Top 10 football team (unless, of course, he was a Top 100 football recruit or because FSU offered a needy non-footballer a full ride and the others schools did not).

You can click here and read all about it.

So rest assured that the evanescent success of a power forward (watch out UConn), a quarterback (hold on, Ole Miss) or a pitcher (don't try the comparative ad campaign targeting Stanford just yet, USC) won't turn your alma mater into a megabucks mind factory that steals the top undergrads away from the schools with wimpy football programs, basketball players who can't go to their left and pitchers whose fastballs can't break 80. You don't have to worry about turning yourself into Cal Tech, MIT or Yale anytime soon.

So what's the justification for intercollegiate athletics?

There really isn't one, is there? (Okay, I won't be a total killjoy; they can be fun).

Intercollegiate intramurals?

You bet. The kids get exercise, they stay in shape, they blow off steam, and yes, they participate. Perhaps learn a little teamwork, make some friends. And given the story today that 38% of school-aged kids in Arkansas are obese and the big national health issue that diabetes is spreading at an academic rate, all young people should be encouraged to engage in physical activity.

And not only watch it.

So let's take intercollegiate athletics for what they are, and not try to attribute salutary benefits to them that just do not happen. Like your school's QB, fine. Think he'll draw the great minds to your school because he was a great QB? Think again. Think he'll cause alumni to donate more money to the general fund? Not much of a chance. The general alumni might buy some more school shirts and football memorabilia after a national championship, and the football boosters might kick more into the kitty, but the benefits, according to this study, don't go beyond that.

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