Tuesday, December 13, 2011

College athletics in the news

The Chronicle has an interesting series of opinion pieces on the following rather frankly worded question: What the Hell Has Happened to College Sports?

Locally, the Southern Illinoisan ran a series of articles recently on the state of athletics:
Small but strong: Reduced staff keeps SIU afloat in academic race
Doing things the Saluki Way: Athletic facilities took priority at SIU
Take a look at the whole picture
The state of Saluki sports
This came before the most recent news, the investigation of a Saluki basketball player accused of sexual assault (though no charges have yet been filed): Police investigating SIU's Bocot. We of course also have the sexual harassment scandal regarding athletics--a problem exacerbated by the administration's unwillingness to bargain a transparent set of procedures for addressing accusations of sexual harassment (which would have made the university's own finding that there was no real violation here more credible).

The series in the Southern asked many of the right questions, but the answers were given, overwhelmingly, by Mario Moccia, who naturally enough defended his programs. Thus the overall result was something of a whitewash. While the recent losing records of the football and basketball teams were duly noted, and there was some attention to the spending for Saluki Way, there was no mention of the fact that SIUC doubled athletics spending in the last five years. Nor did anyone make the argument that our huge investment in athletics was paying off in terms of our wider goals--including increasing enrollment. It seems to me rather clear that SIUC made a huge gamble by pouring most of our disposable revenue into athletics. We've obviously lost this bet.

We've lost not simply because our teams are losing--as many college teams lose as win each and every game, and as the Southern pointed out, SIUC is no exception. We'll have up seasons and down seasons when it comes to the win loss record. And there will be scandals, given the pressures and contradictions between academic, athletic, and business values. The real problems are structural: the idea that a university's success depends on, or can be measured by, how good of a job it does supplying entertainment to its basketball and football fans. Athletics drains resources from academics. That's true even at top of the line big-money academic programs, and it is even more true among mid majors like SIUC.  The last five years were the worst possible time to exacerbate the problem by engaging in a building boom and budget boom for athletics.


  1. Chris Lowery may be the worst performing coach in America in regards to wins per dollar. That's not a problem?!?

    How about we clean up the mess first, then determine whether we need to make structural changes. Vanderbilt GOT RID OF their athletic department by rolling it into the University at large and are achieving an unprecedented level of success in a very competitive SEC. Athletics is still a very small percent of our budget. $20 million out of $600 million if you are curious.

    Final point: Saluki Way was not done for enrollment increases. It was done because the Arena needed major renovation for us to remain in Divison I. Likewise, McAndrew was a major liability and beyond repair.

    Chris Lowery does need to go, ASAP. Just look at Saluki Talk. There's your statistics. Also read the interview of Mario Moccia on there. That should clear things up a bit.

  2. Hey, I'm absolutely fine with firing Lowery--and I'm frankly a bit surprised he hasn't been canned already, despite the cost, now that it is clear that this season will be a disaster. Perhaps if Bocot is charged with sexual assault, Lowery will finally meet the end of the road (this is a big if--we shouldn't prejudge the case, and of course even if Bocot is charged that doesn't mean he's guilty). It's just that I don't think we should expect a winning record to "pay off" in a way that justifies the expense. We had great basketball and football teams for a number of years--and then our winning coaches, predictably, got poached by BCS schools. But having great teams wasn't nirvana, at least on the enrollment front. So while you may be right that firing the coach is what needs to be done ASAP, the problem with athletics around here goes rather deeper than that. We need administrators who can say no to athletics as well as yes.

    I know that athletics is only $20 million out of $600. But five years ago it was $10 million. That $10 million extra every year would pay for a lot of stuff in other places on campus. Furloughs saved $2.6 million, for example. The relevant figure isn't the percentage of the overall budget, but how much of our "disposable" revenues--money not already allocated to something else--we're pouring into athletics. During the last five years, athletics was clearly the big winner--at least in monetary term. We could spend $5 million less every year and still spend as much on athletics as any school in the MVC.

    McAndrew obviously was in poor shape, and the arena was starting to show its age. But Saluki Way wasn't marketed as a project to keep buildings up to code. It was rather more ambitious than that, and funded at a more ambitious level--wasn't it? Hell, back in the day there was even supposed to be an academic building involved.

  3. I agree with your points.

    I just don't know if we should just do away with scholarships altogether, and hand out aid based on need, or just divest ourselves of athletics in such a way that athletes are just independent contractors. The latter would not work with the NCAA, so I think the former is the only option.

  4. Lightsaber, I'm not sure what to do, either--it is of course far easier to say what's wrong with SIUC athletics, and college athletics as a whole, than to come up with practicable reforms, particularly reforms on one campus rather than nation wide. The contributors in the Chronicle series mainly call for the NCAA to regain its monopoly powers, which would give NCAA regulations more teeth, but would hardly solve all problems.

    Here at SIUC the major problem, to my mind, was our attempt to push ourselves into big-time college athletics by spending lavishly on athletics. We seemed on the verge of this with a couple of fine basketball seasons, and our football program was competing at the highest levels of the "Championship Division" (former Division I-AA). Our ambitions there were parallel to our academic ambition to become a first-class second-string university (i.e., to become the clear second-place public research university in the state). Both athletic and academic ambitions were unrealistic (though the academic ambition was, to my mind, rather more noble, as you'll no doubt agree). Call it Southern A & M--the Wendler vision for SIUC. Southern at 150 did provide a coherent vision, but has proven to be unworkable in the current tough climate.

    So what should our athletic goals be? We should be more humble, I would think, and aim to be a contender in the MVC rather than, routinely, on the national level. Expenditures could thus be allowed to level out--we spend $5 million more than our nearest rival, and should allow rivals to catch up over time (rather than making precipitous cuts). We should aim to duplicate the "Floor Burn U" mentality of our basketball team's glory days--a mentality more in keeping with pre-Saluki way dated facilities than fancy ones, by the way. We should strive to keep our athletics program near the top of the MVC in academics instead of at its current position, which is nearer the bottom of MVC rankings than the top (see the story on athletics advising linked to above). Perhaps we should offer fewer sports--while student-athletes in the non-revenue sports are indeed more likely, in my experience, to be good students as well as fine athletes, there are more efficient ways to attract good students than via full athletic scholarships (which also require students to devote every spare minute to their sport, undermining their academic potential). And so on.

  5. Dave:

    Academic building at SIUC? I believe you have the wrong school.

    Rita's latest (as I'm sure you know as you said recently that you are on the FS) is a cool 170+ million on new student residences......not an academic building in sight.

    SIUC doesn't spend money on teaching/research/academics, thats pretty clear by now.

  6. In a time of economic recession (or the second Great Depression as an economist writing for the New York Times has said), athletics simply does not belong in a university whose agenda should be devoted towards education and the production of trained personnel desperately needed in these dire times. Athletics is both unnecessary and redundant. It should be abolished in SIUC as soon as possile and the money transferred to academics. But this is quite unlikely as long as Cheng and Poshard remain in charge.

  7. 6:11,

    I don't think that's a realistic point of view. Getting rid of athletics would just ensure another enrollment drop. I don't think it's necessarily a booster of enrollment, I think it's been a big money waster, but if you cut athletics altogether, you have all that money coming into academics from scholarships gone, along with the sunk cost of Saluki Way. You're not going to back out of the financial commitments made there without bankrupting the institution. Find some way to make the athletic department break even. If it can't, then you're back to where you started.

    Also give up on private fundraising. If we get rid of athletics altogether we are wardens of the state. See how well that worked for places like Chester and Vienna? That's what Carbondale would end up like.

    Are you Viper on the Illusion comments?

  8. This just appeared in the Southern:

    Renovations planned for Abe Martin Field

    The SIU athletic department is planning a major renovation project at Abe Martin Field, home of the baseball team.

    The plan includes a renovation of the seating bowl, press box and dugouts, as well as the addition of lights, a synthetic grass playing surface with a new drainage system and a security fence around the facility.

    To fund the project, former coach Richard "Itch" Jones helped form a committee of baseball alumni to begin the fund raising effort. The committee has raised nearly $700,000.

    "The response has been big early," Jones said. "The majority of former players were interested in helping the university."



    The baseball alumni raised these funds themselves so I do not begrudge them anything. But why can we not raise money like this for academic programs and projects? Why can't we raise funds to move the library books back and build a permanent home for the Math Lab? Does this have to do with leadership priorities or is there some fundamental obstacle?

  9. The administration should be doing this but they don't give a damn about academics, only sport.

  10. $700,000 is impressive--but I wonder what the price tag of the whole project is. Do they have enough to fund the whole thing?

    I don't see how we can fairly blame the administration when the retired baseball coach raises money from alumni. There's nothing stopping us academics from doing so. Some academic departments do manage to raise some money for themselves--I don't think there is any "fundamental obstacle". It helps to have a concrete goal in mind. I know that the art department, for example, recently managed to raise enough money to upgrade (at least) one of their classrooms. Not exactly Saluki Way--but it is something. One thing athletic teams will have that academics don't is alumni whose experience at SIUC was centered on their time on the team. Hence the alumni gave something back not to the university (as Jones is quoted) but to the baseball program. Most math majors, I suspect, don't live & breathe mathematics the way baseball players live & breathe baseball during their time here.

    Still, we in academics could likely learn something from our athletic counterparts. This is the time of year when I often find myself thinking that I wish I'd acted a bit more like a coach during the semester, goading & inspiring students to greater success, so that now that I turn to grading there'd be more wins and fewer losses. The sports analogy breaks down pretty quickly, of course, but we've all had some good classes where students pull together and feed off one another in a way I imagine a strong team does. I wish I knew how to inspire more of that.

  11. "Most math majors, I suspect, don't live & breathe mathematics the way baseball players live & breathe baseball during their time here."

    Maybe not the prospective high school teachers, but the straight math majors are pretty intense! We get donations from some and are able to offer a few scholarships.

  12. Thanks for the report on mathematical intensity, Mike. But I think you know what I mean--we in Classics, at any rate (to stick to safer turf) don't practice together hours each day, go on road trips, experience together the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, etc.

    The Southern this morning (actually a sports columnist, rather than a straight news story) reports that the baseball renovations would cost $4.9 million in total--money which has yet to be found. Much of it will presumably be found from general revenues. To be fair, I *think* that the art department (which I mentioned above--my apologies for dragging them into this, though I think they are a positive example here) got some sort of match from SIUC to go along with their private funding as well, though I don't think it was one of those "matches" that exceeds the private donations by something like 7:1, as would be the case for baseball (and was more or less the case for Saluki Way, though I don't have figures handy).

  13. The Board of Trustees Agenda indicates that an architecture firm will develop a cost estimate and that the budget approval will come later. How does he know that the cost is $4.9 million? If the number is just a ballpark [(-:] figure, wouldn't the article say $5 million?

  14. "The real problems are structural: the idea that a university's success depends on, or can be measured by, how good of a job it does supplying entertainment to its basketball and football fans."

    At last! A definition of "structural deficit"! Now I understand what those furloughs were for.

  15. The Board of Trustees matter says it all...

    'Constituency Involvement - Not pertinent.'

    Do you feel 'Not Pertinent' ???

  16. Has there been any news on the Justin Bocot investigation or has that been swept aside like previous sexual assault investigations of basketball players?

    1. "Bocot sat out during his first year at SIU because his grades didn’t meet NCAA standards, and he recently served a four-game suspension while under investigation for a sexual assault he was later cleared of."

      Read more: http://dailyegyptian.com/2012/01/16/bocot-no-stranger-to-adversity/#ixzz1kOkS7xCE


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