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, January 11, 2009

Time to Fold Up the Tent

Mark Twain was a master at puncturing the self-delusions of Americans. He once noted the appearance of a touring baseball team playing a series of games near the sea kissed beaches of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). He called this an exercise about as incongruous as “interrupting a funeral with a circus.”

Distorting Twain, but holding on to his circus and funeral allusion, think of how the Big Bucks-Big Programs of College Sports, Inc. intrude into the life of universities. Each year more and more dollars are lavished on three ring performances attended by fewer and fewer supporters. As stadium seats yawn empty, the fabled “roar of the crowd” is turning into the low murmurs heard at funerals. Increasingly disappointment turns into discontent and the murmuring becomes muttering. It’s all taking on a tone of alarm. It’s about time.

Last year the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) conducted an exhaustive study of college sports circus revenues and expenses. The report put hard numbers to a long known but undocumented truth. It revealed that the vast majority (95 per cent!) of college athletic programs lose money for their schools.

Slogging through university and athletic department accounts, the NCAA’s "2004‑06 NCAA Revenue and Expenses of Division I Intercollegiate Athletics Program Report" showed only 17 of 300 programs managed to make money or pay their own way by breaking even. And remember, 2004-06 were the “good ol’ days” in terms of the economy.

Despite these ever growing bottom line defeats, college teams hold on to dwindling numbers of die-hard boosters. See the Tribune-Star Editorial of Dec. 20, 2008, “Don’t give up on ISU’s football team” for an outstanding example of the type.

This editorial holds out gauzy dreams (“community” and “loyal bonds”) while clouding over dollars and cents realities. But no one should forget that the pursuit of these dreamy hopes come with a serious pay now price tag. We are spending vast sums in the subprime College Sports, Inc. bubble and the word is out: Pailouts Are Us!

Who pays? Students cough up fees to keep the circus calliope whistling, or at least wheezing; and tax dollars in the general funds of universities serve as the much used safety net when it comes time to make up for ticket booth deficits.

The Trib-Star, ISU Faculty Senate, President Bradley, and the community need to examine how long students and taxpayers should be expected to play the role of water boys sitting at the end of the bench, hopping up each year to carry pails of moola to a pachyderm-sized intercollegiate athletic program. Research on the amounts in the pails of cash supplied to this insatiable white elephant enterprise need to be made available to all.

It goes without saying that hard questions are not asked in gatherings where fan groupthink about Big Buck-Big Program college sports prevails. Probing questions need to be asked in the university setting where the search for truth guides and motivates. Always remembering, it’s not answers that embarrass so much as the failure to ask questions demanding answers.

P. T. Barnum, the king of circus hoop-la and hype, once said, “Every crowd has a silver lining.”
But the sports circus crowds are now thinned out, worn out.

If Barnum were in the college sports biz today, he would take note of the ever-expanding menu of games available on satellite and cable TV at home and in sports bars. He would coolly observe the ever-deepening dips in student attendance at games.

With these funereal facts staring him in the face, with a heavy heart filled with memories of times past, Barnum would take down the bright bunting and put up black crepe. He would fold up his circus tent and move on–satisfied in knowing that he no longer was losing money feeding a lonely elephant.

[This commentary appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Jan. 11, 2009]

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