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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Athletic-academic balance

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Bill Mayer’s June 19 column, in which he praised the balance that Bob Frederick brought to the KU athletic department during his time as athletic director, has resurrected the ongoing conflict that has been brewing in college sports for at least the past century. That conflict is the rapid growth of the athletic departments of many universities to the point that academics are seen to be of less importance.

If the amount of money paid to a coach or a chancellor is the criteria of his value to the university, then sports wins by a ratio of about 4-to-1. Many top college coaches in football or basketball are paid up to four times the salary of the school’s president or chancellor.

This seemingly unreasonable monetary value difference is not necessarily based upon which job is the most valuable to the university but where this money comes from. The professor or department head is paid by the university from funds received from student fees or the state’s contribution, which comes from that state’s taxpayers. The athletic department is a separate entity at many big schools and usually receives all or most of its funds from donors or contributors. This monetary base is separate from the universities’ funds and the donors are usually alumni or fans of the sports teams.

Athletic departments have a cadre of fundraisers out beating the bushes for funding. Many wealthy alums and friends of the schools’ sports teams bequeath assets or insurance policies to their schools’ athletic departments. Many schools’ athletic departments have created additional funding methods by setting sliding scales of value on seating arrangements for football and basketball. These funding devices, while not always appreciated by that school’s sports fans, are a legitimate and efficient source of income.

Sports are a big business and are treated as such when money gets involved. In these modern times of sports broadcasting, many schools receive additional funds from their teams’ games being telecast.

In the early days of sports growth, this conflict between sports and academics was just becoming evident and discussions as to the direction of sports in the college condition were frequent and often divisive. In February 1927, the Emporia Gazette printed an editorial by Rolla Clymer, in which he was critical toward college sports gaining importance over academics. Dr. Phog Allen, then athletic director and the father of basketball coaching, fired off a letter to the publisher of the Emporia Gazette, the very famous William Allen White, in which he defended the place of sports in colleges, especially Kansas University.

Phog Allen responded by saying, “We do not overemphasize athletics to the detriment of academic responsibility.” This was true, for in those days, the athletic department was part of the university and Dr. Allen was being paid in the range of $2,500 per year, the same as other department heads.

Publisher White responded by saying, “Harvard does not need a football victory to make it a great university.” This was also true, for Harvard and the other schools of the Ivy League have continued to this day to maintain their sports programs as minor to their academic excellence. This was their early-day choice and has not succumbed to the sports explosion. A few other major schools such as Vanderbilt and Northwestern, both with highly rated academic standards, continue to play in major sport conferences with just-average-ability players and have usually been the doormats of those leagues.

I recall a conversation in 1979 at the Lawrence home of Odd Williams. Odd and his brother, Skipper, along with their father, Dick, were the founders and operators of the early athletic scholarship fund for Kansas University. This became the Williams Fund in the early 1970s. We had just returned from a football game at KU’s Memorial Stadium, where KU had won. A friend from Wichita had accompanied me and he was not a fan of the Jayhawks, and he asked Odd why KU was a school with such rabid fans and why did they devote so much effort and money toward sports.

To my surprise, Odd told my friend that he knew what he was referring to, and that he sort of felt the same way. He said, “I wish for the old days when we played schools such as Washburn and Emporia State and did not care so much about winning. … I liked those times when on the night before a game, we had a great bonfire, sang songs, and cheered our hometown boys on, but those days are gone forever, we are in one of the best athletic conferences and the competition is fierce. The other schools such as Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Missouri are old rivals, and we have no choice but to do whatever is necessary and legal to stay competitive with them.”

Or maybe just resign from the big conferences and be content to play Ottawa and Baker without recruiting super athletes from Texas or Florida anymore. Odd laughed as he said, “I don’t know of any way that we can go back to the old ways and de-emphasize sports at KU. We will just have to learn to live with what we have become.

Richard Hassur is a retired businessman and writer who lives in Lawrence.

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