(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Saturday, August 10, 2013

College Football's Arms Race, Part II: Oregon's Facilities

Take a look at this.

I am not sure that the owners of the St. Regis, Four Seasons, the Connaught in London or even the legendary Cesar Ritz could have come up with something like this.  And if they had, people would have remarked, "That's pretty neat and something you would expect from a luxury hotel chain that specializes in small details and the best comforts for its guests -- guests who are in the top 0.5% of the earners in the world and who like the best of the best -- and the latest -- in accommodations."  Save the mention of income, and you could imagine that the marketing departments of those chains would come up with copy that would tout all of the wonders of this facility. 

But take away the luxury hotel chains and think about this -- this is a college football program. 

And think about how expensive college is for the average family.  Think about how much debt some kids incur.  Think about how the albatross that that debt can be can stratify a society, can cause kids to marry later and perhaps not have kids and therefore not fortify a society that has done some amazing things in a relatively short time period.  An innovative society in so many ways, starting with a sustained form of government that is relatively young for the history of the world.  Think about what the purpose of colleges should be, versus what some have become.  And think about revenue-generating college athletic programs.

(I won't delve into the raging debate about whether college athletes should receive stipends or a share in the revenue of the sports in which they participate.  That will be for another post because there are big-time, BCS schools and Division III schools, and my guess is that ultimately if revenue is shared we'll have a greater separation between the big-time schools and everyone else.  There are interesting arguments on both sides, but let's put them in the proverbial parking lot for the moment.  I would submit -- and have you think deeply about -- whether the professionalism of college sports is a good thing given the magnitude of the problems our society needs to face, from an aging population, an expensive healthcare system and poorly funded public pension funds, among others).

So now we have Oregon's Ninth Wonder of the World -- this amazing complex that leaves nothing to the imagination, because both Phil Knight and Chip Kelly seemingly thought of everything.  And that underscores the question of the day -- whether, when historians write about the decline of the American influence on the world, they will point to tangents like this that overtook our society to such a degree that we neglected to put our best minds on problems that matter a whole lot more than whether a team that has not been a historical power can become a dominant one?  To me, something like this is evidence of just that.

Phil Knight is an American original and innovator and in many ways should be admired.  Chip Kelly is a football innovator who has done some amazing things with football.   But what I question is the extreme emphasis placed on this game.  Sure, Knight is free to donate the money as he wishes, and perhaps Oregon would have been foolish to decline the gift.  But doesn't this seem excessive?  Couple facilities with this with the non-coaching "staff" that I blogged about recently and that has become another arms race (Nick Saban has 24 of such "staff" at an average salary of roughly $75,000 a year)?  Is that wise?  Is that good?

I expect football fanatics to wholeheartedly disagree with me, and I expect alums of these big-time schools who love football and the overall experience to chastise me, too.  Sure, I'm from Pennsylvania, and Penn State has not done stuff like that (yet, perhaps), and holds itself out differently (and at great cost, and, yes, something terrible happened around that program over the course of the past decades).  And I am not jealous of Alabama and Oregon or trying to "dumb them down" so that Penn State and others won't fall too far behind.  But can't there be a medium here?  I know that the NCAA is cumbersome, ineffective and sometimes misses the point, but this arms race doesn't seem to bode well for anyone in the long run.

Especially the communities the universities are supposed to serve and the students the institutions are supposed to serve.   With the excessive and almost criminal costs of college in this country, we owe our students a lot more than beer parties, tailgates and a euphoric feeling that one can say, "I met Nick Saban at a coffee shop" or "yeah, I was there when they won three titles in four years."  Sure, some memories like that are fun, but isn't college supposed to help prepare us for our careers, to be better members of society and to better society?  While it is true that alums from generations ago might have been less specialized and that their careers didn't necessarily derive from their majors, the difficulties in finding a job and the expense of college have compelled students and parents to take a much different look at college, far from looking at where junior can have a good time and go into the family business to where junior can best prepare for her and his next steps in life, such are the costs and such is the competition. 

And because of that, I would submit that our universities owe everyone much better leadership and stewardship than to permit sports programs from becoming bigger than any institution.  The Oregon facilities are spectacular, but can anyone convince me that Oregon's football program does not have a disproportionate influence on all things at Oregon?  And why is that good for anyone save those intimately involved with the Oregon program?

The advent of non-coaching staffs and facilities that rival St. Regis resorts is not a good thing.  It's the beginning of a destructive arms race that suggests are society's priorities are (somewhat) warped.  That's not to say that college athletics cannot do a bunch of good things; they do.  It's just to say that in the case of BCS football programs, some are out of proportion to the overall educational mission and many will get that way. 

And we should question whether that's the type of society we want, and whether this emphasis is what our society needs.


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