Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

CROSSROADS COMMENT - - Still Paying the Price

[Terre Haute Tribune Star, Oct. 13, 2007]

FLASHPOINT: College athletic programs aren’t worth the price we pay

If people aren’t ready to welcome it, is there ever a good time for truth to show up at the door? Hard truth shivers in the cold; false hopes and fabricated dreams are greeted with warmth by the desperate and the deluded.

Indiana State University’s Athletic Director Ron Prettyman arrived at the front door the other day and was welcomed in. The A.D. had just fired (“reassigned” in A.D. lingo) head football coach Lou West. It was “the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Prettyman said. And with this, an unexamined kind of truth accompanied the deed through the door.

I’ll be blunt. I’ll offend those who are going to be offended no matter how I say it. Why do we turn this blip on the super-wide sports screen into a drama? This wasn’t a hard thing for A.D. Prettyman to do. Not if he aspires to talk the talk and walk the walk of a big time university A.D. This is what A.D.s in our cutthroat, commercialized college sports programs do. This is the kind of truth athletic directors dish out regularly. A.D.s grow up hypnotized by the gold standard of all locker room wisdom — when the going gets tough, somebody needs to go. Or something like that.

And now the Tribune-Star is moved to editorialize on this “hardest decision.” A standard business decision, athletic department style, is transformed into a “bold” move. The editorial’s heading proclaims: “‘Excellence’ now a priority at ISU.” And since when does firing a losing coach qualify as a “bold” move? And do we really want to even hint that “Excellence” at an institution of higher learning is in any way related to points on a scoreboard?

“Reassigning” the coach is only standard operating procedure in the bloated, corrupt and corrupting university athletic programs operating in this nation. Let’s not make it into anything more than it is. This episode at ISU is just another instance of following the crowd deeper into the swamp.

ISU is comfortable being a part of this athletic bog. We are complicit and at ease spending enormous amounts of money to field a “winner.” We enter into the ruse to the sound of marching bands. Mark Bennett (Tribune Star, Sept. 21, “ISU football fans numbed into indifference by long pattern of losing”) paints a Hallmark greeting card telling us how it should be — “(college football is) a fantastic part of Americana that is a spiritual and economic motivator in most campus towns.”

Bennett should take on the task of itemizing the bill we all pay for those large squads of athletes first, students second, that take the field on Saturdays. He would be providing an important service.

Such a bill of particulars might even introduce the public to a truth most resist. People should know that the overwhelming number of athletic programs fail to pay for themselves. This goes for winners and losers alike, for those filling stadiums and collecting TV revenues, even for the Big Horses in the final four and garnering bowl bids — most by far end up in the red. Study after study shows this to be true. Is ISU one of the few exceptions? Will they ever be?

“ISU football fans numbed into indifference,” but the numbing and the indifference goes much deeper than a few inches of artificial turf. Students and the parents paying the bills at ISU are feeling numb. Cuts in educational programs and faculty do demonstrate an indifference to the true mission of the school. Opening and airing the books of ISU’s intercollegiate athletic program might just allow some dollars and cents truths through the door.

ISU has escaped the worst of the athletic program scandals wracking the big boys we pant to emulate. These scandals regularly receive the attention of the media-grade manipulation, recruiting violations, abysmal graduation rates, segregation of athletes from the student body, buying and falsification of transcripts, unchecked violence off the field as well as on. If we are listening, we can hear it all. But we only sniff, shrug and conveniently forget about the dark and odiferous parts of the college (and increasingly high school) athletic scene.

So now it’s on with a national search for another ISU head football coach. Open the school coffers, tack a “New Coach” surcharge on the student fee total, hit up the donors and alums for big bucks. Six figures (but beginning with what number?) should do it. And in the mean time, pay off the contract of Lou West and sweeten the pot for the efforts of Dennis Raetz.

ISU is also searching for a new university president; someone you would think should have a word or two to say about all of this. But because of this sanctioned rush to replace, here’s what will eventually happen:

Crafty athletic director will meet blind-sided new President. The conversation will go like this: “President ‘We Gottcha,’ our football program is under strong, new leadership. I’d like you to meet Coach ‘Fait Accompli.’ And now, about that new stadium on campus …”

It’s your university, your money. Take notice of bottom-line facts. Face the facts. Speak the facts.

ISU fans migrated to football on TV screens decades ago. They may appear to be ready to buy into crocodile tears about “hardest decisions” and give rah-rah lip service to fielding a winner, but do you seriously believe you will be hearing their cheers for the Sycamores at Memorial Stadium again, ever?

Sweaty visions that “Excellence” equals a wide receiver who can fly and a QB who can get the ball to him may still make hearts beat faster, but mainly when such heroics affect the week’s point spread. As one wag put it, real “excellence” is a campus bookstore containing more books than clothing, pillows, mugs, toys, alarm clocks, fanny pillows, hair-removal systems, and candy bars featuring the university’s name or logo. Traditions that last and mean something are built in classrooms, not on ever-changing scoreboard results.

Nostalgia for the never never land of “cool autumn afternoons; tailgating with brats and beers; students dressed in wild paint; and restaurants, hotels and bars busy with fans before and afterward” continues to be thrown at people. It’s a cloud and a mirage — it no longer sells tickets, it will never pay the long-term costs for what will always be short-term jolts of satisfaction.

High priced athletic programs have nothing, nada, to do with a university education. If you think it does, all that is left to say is don’t let the door hit you in the backside as you rush through.