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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Sunday, December 23, 2007

ISU Blue, Inc. and the Athletics Arms Race

[from Terre Haute Tribune Star, Dec. 23, 2007]

FLASHPOINT: The future of athletic programs, facilities at ISU

Because three to five pages of every newspaper in the land is devoted to sports, because the local nightly news includes a sports segment longer than any other part of its newscast, and because the cable channels are filled with pre-game, mid-game and post-game sports blather, most people have a vague notion that sports is part of an open marketplace of information. Most people would be wrong.

Being conversant with Kerry Wood’s shoulder problems and the terms of his latest $4.2 million contract with the Cubs doesn’t mean you know much about the business of sports in America. And when it comes to industrialized college sports, well, most fans would end up at the bottom of a dark and winding flight of stairs if there were an ISTEP test on the subject.

Today the college sports industry closely resembles corporate America — they’re powerful, secretive, and oozing with PR savvy. But when you buy shares (emotional shares or student fee shares) in, say, ISU Blue, Inc., don’t expect the company prospectus, a profit-loss statement, or a revenue vs. expense accounting to show up as an insert in your game program.

This being the case, I attended the Intercollegiate Athletics “seminar” presented to the ISU board of trustees last week. The hope was to hear some give and take on the issues bedeviling the college sports industry in general, and ISU Blue, Inc. in particular. That “seminar” tag pulled me in. Most of the trustees attended. Including myself, two, possibly three members of the “interested public” sat in the back of the room — a proportionate echo of the few who venture out to Memorial Stadium for autumn football games.

Predictably, the so-called seminar turned out to be a PowerPoint pitch by ISU’s athletic department. After 20 minutes of this, an old tune started to run through my brain. Was that Professor Harold Hill from “The Music Man” up front selling artificial turf and new stadiums to the hopeful and the tone deaf? “We got trouble right here in River City” was doing rapid-fire push-ups in my aching head.

Large men in sharp suits (and I don’t mean sweat suits) hawked their wares in the form of concerns to the board. They appeared to hit all their marks. Close attention, though nothing in the way of probing questions, came from the board of trustees and President Benjamin. Clearly, they were buying.

The highlight of the afternoon? Athletic Director Ron Prettyman forthrightly pronounced on the odor of ISU Blue, Inc.’s athletic facilities. I think the words to his catchy line went, “Our facilities stink.”

Because this “stink” has gotten some attention, here’s how these odiferous facts were obtained.

As reported by A.D./CEO Prettyman, he and his counterparts in the Missouri Valley Conference gather around a shiny table and “vote” on the qualities of the various venues in which they hold their highly subsidized fun and games. This “vote” by the very interested parties involved leads to rankings. And, after all, “rankings” are the legal/emotional steroids on which College Sports, Inc. run. Solemnly and dutifully, Prettyman announced these rankings to the “seminar” gathering.

As reported in this newspaper on Friday, Dec. 7, (a day that will live forever in Terre Haute’s rich record of olfactory infamy?) the rankings were flashed up on the seminar PowerPoint pitch screen for the ISU trustees to behold. The S & E Q (Squirm and Embarrassment Quotient) level in the room rose considerably. For, sure enough, in hard example after hard example, ISU’s varied sports facilities were ranked at, or near, the bottom of the heap among its peers.

Memorial Stadium — seventh out of seven. Arena — ninth out of 10. Marks Field — sixth out of six. And on and on. Agonizing to hear as the usual inane college sports slogan we’re taught from birth is: We’re Number One! Unfortunately, no one bothered to ask just what the qualitative difference between being seven rather than six or five or four or so on might be. Or if facilities are weighted by differences in enrollments, state aid, or skewed by a gift from a stray billionaire who was always picked last in the gym class games and is looking for a tax break.

It’s all shocking and even smelly. Right?

The answer? Well, it’s going to cost you. Let’s start planning to spend millions over the coming years so that ISU Blue, Inc. can, … what? Move our all-important ranking from 10th to ninth or eighth in that MVC athletic director’s vote? So that ISU Blue, Inc. can recruit a few more “blue chippers”? So that the heads of ISU Blue, Inc. can point to their developing a “Sycamore Experience” that is all about spectating, not participating?

This is how the athletics arms race in American universities around the country works. We incessantly compare programs, point with alarm and embarrassment, demand more and more money to fund “Pride In Your School and Community,” and dump the results in the faces, laps and pocketbooks of fans and students.

I hesitate to end this critique without emphatically stating two points.

Ron Prettyman and his staff and coaches are from all indications first-rate individuals who probably work as hard as anyone on the campus of Indiana State University. They are working to make their programs, and the athletes they field, the best they can be.

However, their qualities as individuals and their work ethic are not what this is all about. It’s about a wasteful, non-educational, and potentially (and too often actually) corrupting entity that has burrowed into higher education and needs to be extracted, root and branch.

A second point follows from this demonstrable truth. Indiana State University’s intercollegiate athletic program, ISU Blue, Inc, should be shut down. Pay off the coaches and staff, forget about ISU Blue, Inc. facilities that “stink,” save the millions needed to deodorize them, concentrate student and taxpayer dollars on intramural programs, sports for life initiatives, and, most of all, teaching and scholarship.

Pursue this course and ISU will in one fell swoop save money, get back on the educational mission track, and find itself standing out from the litter of copy-cat, follow-the-leader institutions.

We might even find ourselves in the position to shout: We’re Number One! and mean it.

— Gary W. Daily

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