Oregon State and its athletic department had an interesting dilemma last week. Faced with a tight budget and a must-do-to-survive stadium expansion project, the Beavers were offered $1.8 Million by Spirit Mountain Casino. The million would be a capital campaign gift for the "Raising Reser" campaign. The ".8" part would be in exchange for advertising in the stadium and on Beaver broadcasts.
It's easy to talk about doing the right thing, to say with certainty what one would do in some highly improbably circumstance. "IF I won the lottery, I'd give it to charity." "IF I found a wallet with a thousand dollars in it, I'd return it with the wallet." Real-world temptations - call me crazy, but I'll count $1.8 Million among these -- are where the easy talk becomes a difficult walk.
Oregon State, which needs the money in a big way, looked nearly $2 Million in the eye, pushed their chair away from the table, and said "Thank you, but no."
With college football finding itself under several microscopes due to revelations about excess, special benefits, and Caligulan recruiting practices, it was an understandable decision, even laudable -- in intent, if not in reality.
Coming from Oregon State, however, it was not a surprising one. The Beavers' are far from the "nothing succeeds like excess" crowd. The private jets, the $5,000 per recruit official visit weekends, the $27,000 per player locker room, a pervasive corporate influence -- these are not the ways that Oregon State has chosen to conduct their football program. Rather than striving for the cutting edge for its own sake, OSU realized that casinos and college football can make an uncomfortable pairing, that it might not "look right," that it could "send the wrong message."
Smart is the soldier who picks his battles, who chooses which hill to charge.
Had they accepted, Oregon State would have picked one heck of a battle on a
very steep hill.
Still, it would have been interesting had OSU had opened Pandora's Box - and with it a public debate on the "appropriateness" of a linkage between gambling and amateur sports and education.
It would have been great if Oregon State had waited out the inevitable protestations of "appearances" and "propriety," and then responded...
"Yes. Let's talk about gambling and kids and education and messages, shall we?"
Gambling is how we have chosen to fund things in this state, from state parks to "economic development" to - case in point -- public education from kindergarten through higher education.
The nine state universities already accept "Sports Action" revenues to fund their athletic programs. So it's fair to ask why Spirit Mountain presents an ethical issue, while the Sports Action checks are cashed and Oregon Lottery advertising is accepted without a second thought.
Some say it is wrong to profit from what is, for some, an addictive behavior. Yet the universities seem to have no qualms about accepting advertising for beer in their stadiums and broadcasts when far more people are addicted to alcohol than gambling.
Any addiction specialist will tell you that addictions rarely show up alone. Alcohol and gambling addictions are a frequent one-two punch. Liquid bravado and games of chance are not a good match.
So, it's a worthwhile distinction that while alcohol is not served in the gaming areas of tribal casinos, the Oregon Lottery's cash cow -- video poker -- is played almost exclusively in places where liquor is served.
Finally, if gambling is a social ill, it's worth noting that the vast majority of Oregonians must travel to the casinos in order to play. The Oregon Lottery, however, has a presence on nearly every business-zoned corner. "Available wherever adult beverages are served."
It is fair to ask not only why the distinction is made between the Oregon Lottery and the Tribal Casinos, but why there is a distinction between athletics and the rest of the university as recipients of gambling-derived support.
The sports/gambling thing doesn't hold up. The Oregon Lottery, on the other hand, advertises its football-point-spread-based "Sports Action" game in Reser Stadium and on Oregon State broadcasts, and the university athletics programs are direct beneficiaries of the lottery's point-spread game. Spirit Mountain and the Tribal Casinos do not have sports books or point-spread games.
It's hard to argue that Oregon Lottery money is any "cleaner" than that of the Tribal Casinos., quite the contrary. Yet Lottery money is accepted with no qualms. Why is Tribal Casino money any different?
Should all donors who earn their money legally and who wish to support stated institutional priorities be subject to some sort of "purity" litmus test? Shall we evaluate donors based on labor practices, environmental impact or their history of political donations?
If someone makes their fortune in a legal endeavor that has fallen from social favor -- selling SUV's, old-growth logging, managing mutual funds -- will their gift be similarly scrutinized?
Like Captain Renault, Oregon has no qualms about pocketing its winnings in the form of subsidies to education, recreation and economic development. But we do love to proclaim ourselves "Shocked. Shocked!"
The part of me that loves a good football game would have loved it had Oregon State accepted the deal, waited out the inevitable indignation and the hand-wringing about "sending the wrong message," and then said, "Damned straight we did the deal."
The Beavers would have had an excellent point. Whether one's concerns are ethical or economic, Oregon's state universities - and all levels of public education, state parks and "economic development" - are dependent upon gambling. It is a funding method that we, as Oregonians, have chosen repeatedly.
The Athletics Advisory Board, Student Leadership, even the Faculty Senate -- all of those who have long understood the nature of the game -- got this one right. They voted to accept the deal.
As long as we are comfortable with that and as long as it's okay to accept Sports Action money, then there is no logical reason for the Beavers to pass on nearly $2 Million from the good folks at Spirit Mountain.
Let's just admit that we have chosen to make our state dependent and let OSU do the deal. In that grand Oregon tradition of "Difference for its own sake," it could be yet another example of how we're "different" here!
No? If not, then why not? If gambling and sports is a bad idea, we're already there. If gambling and education is a worse idea, then we should confront that. The issue isn't colleges or even football in particular, receiving gambling money. They already do and have for years.
How does accepting $1.8 Million from Spirit Mountain differ from accepting another $1.8 Million from the Oregon Lottery? It doesn't.
Oregon State, facing a choice between perpetuating hypocrisy or provoking what could have been a very productive public discussion, chose the former.
Bottom line: If Oregon State can ethically accept Oregon Lottery money, it can ethically accept Spirit Mountain's gift. If it can't accept Spirit Mountain's gift, it has no business accepting Oregon Lottery dollars for any university endeavor.
The issue isn't the appropriateness of accepting gambling money, but which gambling money is acceptable, and why or why not? The distinction is a false one.
$1.8 is a very expensive "principled stand," when the principle doesn't hold up under scrutiny and it is only born by one department. But principles get sticky when they're applied in only one part of one's life, or if they only go so far.
If Spirit Mountain money is unacceptable, so is Oregon Lottery money, not just for athletics, but for the entire university.
Dr. Ray, I urge you to reconsider your decision. As it stands, Oregon State has made the only decision that has no benefit whatsoever for the university.
Most sensible people would have responded in the same way as the Athletics Advisory Board, Student Leadership and the Faculty Senate: "Good for you, Oregon State."
The worst thing that would have happened had Oregon State accepted the Spirit Mountain money would have been a healthy public debate that is long overdue.
Both are worth pursuing.
Dr. Ed Ray's response?
"Yes or no on this issue was the immediate question for me and the answer is no. the project will go forward without these funds."
JayDub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.