Marshall: Sports Teams Help Major Colleges

Phillip Marshall writes about the marriage of aacademics and athletics at major colleges like Auburn.

The marriage between college athletics and academia has been dysfunctional from the start. Let's face it: A chemistry professor and a football coach have very different agendas. Always have. Always will.

Bubbling often beneath the surface and sometimes out in the open, the conflict between the two sides seems more pronounced at Auburn than a lot of places. Why? It's probably at least partly because of some faculty members who have developed a truly unreasonable dislike for anyone who has anything to do with the Board of Trustees. They believe most of the trustees support athletics, so they don't. At least not publicly. Of course, faculty football tickets certainly don't go unused.

When I attended a meeting of the university senate during the height of the jetgate scandal, I was intrigued by a few things. The most amazing moment was when then-president William Walker decreed that "integrity is in the eye of the beholder." Though there were exceptions, it was obvious that most of those there, at least most who spoke publicly, held athletics in disdain.

Can anyone make this marriage a happy one at Auburn? Probably not. But those who grind their teeth and mutter in anger about athletics and the massive attention it receives really aren't paying a lot of attention to reality.

Maybe it would have been better if, long ago, college athletics had not become what it is today. Maybe it would be better if there weren't millions of dollars involved in games played by college kids.

But it's too late. That horse is out of the barn and running free. There's no getting it back in.

If what some faculty members--at Auburn and other places--want were to really happen, if athletics were to be de-emphasized and made an nice, relaxed extracurricular activity for everyday students, several problems would emerge.

First, the attractiveness of the school for students would be diminished. Donations would go down. That would just be the beginning.

Almost every big-time college athletic program is awash in debt. With few exceptions, the facilities that are being built at a frantic pace are largely financed by bond issues, which translate into borrowed money. No matter how the legal papers are written, athletic departments are ultimately parts of the universities they represent. If an athletic department were to be unable to pay its bills, the university would be on the hook.

It would be nice if every college athlete was a skilled and dedicated student, properly prepared through high school to succeed in college. In the South, it isn't going to be that way anytime soon. Football and basketball, the two main money-makers, are played largely by young men from poor backgrounds. Many of them are from underachieving school systems.

Without them, you can't win. If you don't win, ticket sales go down. If ticket sales go down, the department eventually will have difficulty paying its bills. And that's where we came in a few paragraphs ago.

Personally, I have never understood just who is hurt by giving people chances. A lot of those young men (and women) from poor backgrounds have blossomed, earned degrees and gone on to much better lives than they would have had without college athletics. No one, not even coaches focused on winning, says they should get a free ride, but some of them need extra help to succeed.

Some, of course, don't make it. Some doctors' and lawyers' children don't make it. Some who were A students in high school and aced every standardized test don't make it. Some who have to work fulltime just to go to school do well. Some who were disasters as high school students do well.

Coaches are under unprecedented pressure to make sure players succeed in school. Sometimes, no matter what coaches and academic counselors do, players don't succeed. That's a fact of life.

It's also a fact of life that those in athletics and those on university faculties have to co-exist, like it or not. At schools like Auburn, a successful athletic program is good for everyone connected with the university. The sooner everyone understands that, the better off everyone will be.

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