Big-Time College Sports: Time to Kill or Be Killed


It was a running joke my uncle the priest came to tell his parishioners every Super Bowl Sunday, especially during those years the hometown 49ers were so often represented in the NFL’s championship game. “I will work quickly and end early today,” he’d quip, “so you can get to the worship of America’s real national religion, football.”

And, as is the case for all good humor, his foundation wasn’t that far from the truth. Professional sport has become a well-loved and financially well-supported industry in this country. But even as big money can, God knows, create good entertainment, it also has the potential to twist and corrupt. If you’ve been paying attention to either news or sports recently, that can’t be any kind of surprise at all.

Potential corruption of pros by professional-scale money is one thing – we’d almost expect there to be some toxic spillover in for-profit entertainment enterprises – but the effects of big-time sports money on amateur sport is something else again. The money that’s come to American colleges and universities from running sports entertainment businesses has had seriously pernicious effects on what are still (nominally, at least) institutions of higher learning.

Here’s a table showing the top 20 sports revenue-producing institutions of higher learning, as of 2008. [Note how many of the top 20 are public and, therefore, publicly-funded institutions.] This is serious dough. Just to get some sense of this scale, the top performers on this list make about as much in revenue as tech-sector stand-outs like Pandora and LinkedIn.

Rank Team Total Revenue
1 Alabama


2 Texas


3 Ohio State


4 Florida


5 Tennessee


6 Michigan


7 Oklahoma State


8 Wisconsin


9 Texas A&M


10 Penn State


11 Auburn


12 Georgia


13 LSU


14 Notre Dame


15 Kansas


16 Iowa


17 Michigan


18 Oklahoma


19 Stanford


20 USC


[Source: ESPN, 2008]

This kind of money drives distorting behaviors. And to protect this revenue stream, significant measures are often taken. As just one example, the University of Maryland recently paid $2 million to buy out the contract of its football coach (then carrying a losing win-loss record), then hire a new coach for an annual salary of an additional $2 million. In outlining his rationale for making these moves, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, asserted his belief that, “intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment.” [Source: Forbes]

Baylor Bears vs. Kansas Jayhawks - January 16, 2012

In 2010, the 44 public universities with teams in the 5 most established athletic conferences (e.g., PAC-12, Big Ten) paid their head football coaches an average salary of over $2 million, well above the average salary of anyone else on campus [Source: Wall Street Journal], much less those who actually deliver on schools’ educational mission, the faculty.

Investment in big-time athletics might pay off for their host institutions financially, but data show the academic returns are mixed. At one time, student-athletes (the very name sounds anachronistic today) participated in revenue-producing and spirit-building athletics in exchange for the promise of a college degree. As big-time sports programs rake in the cash, and many athletes have come to focus almost exclusively on athletics and bail out of college early to join their sports’ professional ranks, that notion is being re-examined.

In fact, there is a large gap between the academic achievement levels of student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts at many schools. So, in reality, where is the benefit promised players? This calls into question whether schools running big-time sports programs are unfairly and handsomely benefitting from labor that is essentially free, and many have called for student-athletes to be paid. The schools with the largest difference in graduation rates between athletes (football players, in this case) and non-athletes, including, in the top position, to my shame, one of my beloved alma maters, are listed in the table, below.

Difference in Graduation Rates Between Football Players and All Students
Major Programs


Football Players

All Students


















Georgia Tech
















Texas A&M
















Florida St.




North Carolina St.








Duke University economist (and a former teacher of mine) Charles Clotfelter, wrote a book about the conundrum this kind of imbalance presents to America’s colleges. Unsurprisingly, he finds deep unease. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, thinks sports an expensive side-show for schools: “Educational institutions have absolutely no business operating farm systems for the benefit of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.” James Duderstadt, the University of Michigan’s former president agrees: “Big-time college athletics has little to do with the nature or objectives of the contemporary university. Instead, it is a commercial venture, aimed primarily at providing public entertainment.”

Educational institutions running big-time sports programs bear great risks. They reap potentially huge revenues from their programs that reward activities not part of their core educational purpose. Priorities are skewed. While academic programs starve, state-of-the-art athletic facilities are built and coaches wallow in cash. Other than coaches, the main beneficiaries of these sports programs are professional football and basketball leagues, who harvest generation after generation of athletes trained and polished at mostly public expense. Furthermore, these schools benefit from the free labor of their students, who are not allowed to accept income and, increasingly, do not even benefit academically from their work.

A well-known and successful college basketball coach talked about his program’s essential independence from his host institution (not to mention his own obvious disdain for academic authority): “We’re not even really part of the school anymore, anyway…you think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do?” [Source: New York Times]

In the long run, this is an unsustainable situation. Colleges must get out of the big-time sports entertainment business if they are to keep alive any hope of fulfilling their educational missions. In the end, these enterprises are not worthy of the institutions these programs still (nominally) represent.


The Story of Boy and a Ship


Long ago and far away…

On a windy day, the young man stood at the far downhill edge of his family’s farm, looking out at the broad and blue water of the gulf.  He had chores to do, as he did every day, of course, but there was a glorious white ship passing and the boy could not tear his gaze from it no matter that piles of cuttings clogged the fields and hungry animals went waiting.

The ship’s long, narrow bow sliced the water and launched churning waves to its sides. A red and blue insignia decorated the stack, now belching dark grey smoke. A colorful foreign flag spanked and cracked from the stern. The young man had watched many ships go by while avoiding the real work of the farm, but never had he seen any this graceful, this beautiful. And on the deck, he saw an officer standing proud, erect, focused on the place ahead where he would soon dock his vessel. The officer’s coat had rows of shining gold buttons, shining gold braid on the sleeves and shining gold emblems on the lapels.  

The young farmboy was completely transfixed.

About to burst with excitement, he could no longer bear to stand still for another second on that drably brown farm, not with that beautiful ship gliding by. Just looking at it made his heart ready to explode. There was no stopping his feelings and there was now no stopping him. He dropped his hoe and ran, following the ship’s path.

It might have been hours, for all he knew, that he ran to reach the ship, now safely tied to the dock and, unlike the boy himself, at rest. He might rightly have expected the still ship to have lost some of its beauty, its majesty. But, if anything, being so close made it seem all the grander still than it had cutting through the deep blue water of the gulf.

The boy’s eyes were afire, his mouth agape.

The ship’s captain, leaning on an impossibly high rail, noticed the boy watching him and doffed his cap with a smile. At some level, the man must have known the boy was hooked. And, in his defense, it was quite common practice to recruit young sailors this way. So, he waved the boy onto the ship and into the start of a new life.

He couldn’t have known, when he climbed up the gangplank onto the beautiful white boat, that war was coming to his country, even to his family’s little dirt farm. He couldn’t have known that his family would, fearful of the coming waves of the war’s death, disperse to the four winds. A generation hence, the families started by he and his brothers would find themselves at the farthest reaches of the earth – South Africa, Ecuador, Australia and America.

He came to see places he’d never heard of – Africa, South America, India, the many islands of the south Pacific, and the magical ports of the Orient. He met people of excitingly unfamiliar customs and appearance. He worked on many ships – for he didn’t last long on the beautiful white ship that had initially seduced him into the life of a sailor – that carried the men and material that would come to win wars and build mighty empires.

He, as they say with high spirits in the context of swashbuckling fiction, sailed the seven seas. He must, in literal truth, have sailed around the world a hundred times by the time of his death. But he never spoke to his family again, or saw them or the beautiful farm that had fed and nurtured him throughout his young life.

That connection, or re-connection, was left to subsequent generations.


A Clown; A Very Sad Little Clown

Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida

I’ve heard people ask recently, as the purposefully-engineered fiscal cliff “crisis” has passed and the debt ceiling farce begins, what’s happened to the GOP’s “intellectual budget heavyweight,” Paul Ryan? He should be more visible; he really should. After all, since our Congress has become a circus, we ought to have clowns.

How this little boy, whose intellectual development seems to have stopped sometime soon after high school, became known for his gravity and heft is beyond me. Sometime in his late teens, he was introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand and has since become a true and evangelical believer in Rand’s philosophy. He apparently makes his staff read her novels and often quotes passages he finds particularly inspirational, especially John Galt’s  interminable (and childish) close to Atlas Shrugged. I won’t quote it here (Trust me, I’m doing you a great service.) but it’s precisely the type of big speech an adolescent might become completely taken with but, with luck and real life experience, would soon enough outgrow.

In last year’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden had the honesty (if, perhaps, bad manners) to laugh out loud at Ryan’s juvenile posturing. In truth, Ryan isn’t the kind of clown you laugh at. He’s the kind you pity, then escort offstage – preferably, as soon as possible, before he does any real harm.


My Case Against the NRA


This is not a critique of gun owners. I know a great many people who own firearms. Without exception, they know their weapons and how to care for and use them, and are quite serious about safety.

Nor is this a statement about gun control, nor a discussion about the limits of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution. I have previously written at length about both. You can read three previous posts about guns here, here and here.

This post is strictly about the National Rifle Association (NRA), its methods and indefensible positions on matters of public policy.

Here are some of the association’s most venal policy initiatives:

1. In 1994, the NRA opposed legislation to outlaw teflon-coated bullets, called “cop-killers,” because they are specifically designed to penetrate the body armor commonly worn by police.

2. Starting in about 2007, the NRA wrote and pushed for the adoption of legislation in several states that forced the owners of businesses and land to allow their employees and others to carry firearms onto their private property, even if they expressly denied their permission to do so.

3. In 2010, the NRA supported allowing people on the federal government’s terrorist watch list to buy firearms and asserted that preventing them from doing so would infringe on their 2nd Amendment rights.

4. In 2010, and over the strong objections of the nation’s law enforcement community, the NRA introduced federal legislation (through one of their more dependable toads, Rep. Todd Tihart of Kansas) that severely restricted the information the public was allowed to see about the sources of firearms (i.e., the identities of specific dealers) used in crimes.

5. The NRA has consistently opposed requiring background checks on the sale of every firearm in the US, using the back-door mechanism of so-called “private” gun sales (e.g., at gun shows).

6. The recent position of the NRA’s executive director, expressed mere days after another mass murder of innocents, namely putting armed guards in every American public school, is atrocious for its stupidity and cluelessness as well as its venality.

It’s completely clear that the NRA acts as the political agent of death merchants (i.e., arms manufacturers), not to secure and protect the rights of individual gun owners. How my smart, responsible, gun-owning friends can continue to support with their dues the NRA’s filthy work in consistent opposition to public safety is beyond me.


Summer Dreaming

Frozen Chair

This chair’s metal frame is frozen, as it is now in the depth of a Sierra winter. Little icicles hang down from it toward the icy deck it sits on. Winter’s white blanket of snow piles high around, covering the nearby picnic tables.

Later in the year, we will sit at those tables with our guests and eat from the barbecued meats and sweet corn we will lovingly cook.

In the matter of a very few months, this chair will have its colorfully striped cushion and its laughing occupants restored. This very chair.

But not today. Today, the weather keeps us inside by the fire, warm and happy.

The chair waits patiently for its time.

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