- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Recently we have been treated to the spectacle of the Atlantic Coast Conference wanting to expand its market to include several Big East schools. While I can see the injustice of such a move, it doesn’t incite me too much since I believe the whole system is a gigantic mistake.

Our American system of attaching mass sports entertainment to the ongoing life of universities is unique in the world. The fact that it is one-of-a-kind is not a tribute to the genius of American universities, but rather to their folly.

There is an intrinsic reason for declaring the system a folly. Universities are for education and research, not entertainment. They violate their main mission when they take on a huge enterprise — mass entertainment — that has nothing to do with that mission.

All sorts of crazy things follow from this. The budgets of athletic departments grow to grotesque proportions. Football coaches get paid many times more than the president of the university, let alone its senior professors. Athletes are recruited who can barely pass the minimal Scholastic Aptitude Test requirement. Many of these athletes have little interest in their academic program, which means they never graduate. A small minority have criminal propensities. Some cheat by having other students take their exams for them. Some coaches intervene to protect the athletes from the consequences of their poor academic performances. Athletes are given special academic support along with special living and eating arrangements. Big-time collegiate sports are so demanding in time and energy that even serious student athletes have a hard time keeping up with their requirements.

But perhaps oddest of all, universities become more known for their performances in sport than in teaching and scholarship. In some cases, the suspicion arises that sports are a convenient fig leaf that covers these universities’ lack of academic prowess or any unifying academic vision. When the Romans lost their commitment to their republic, they provided mass entertainment.

I know Americans cannot be weaned away from this crazy combination of universities and mass entertainment. The folly has become a national habit. Therefore, I propose a solution that will allow big-time sports to be associated with universities, but without the deception that the athletes are there primarily as students and without the confusion that big-time sports are central to the main purpose of the university.

The athletic departments should simply be made auxiliaries of the universities. They would be severed from any academic pretense — becoming athletic organizations associated with the universities. They would be self-supporting with the revenue-generating sports subsidizing the others. Donors would support them to their hearts’ content. Coaches would be paid the going market rate without any suggestion they were involved in the academic life of the university. Athletic departments would be free of Title IX craziness since athletes wouldn’t be getting aid from the university. Athletes would be honestly recruited according to athletic prowess, not according to the illusion they are scholar-athletes, when in truth they have only minimal academic capacities. They would be paid modest sums — stipulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — for their labors. Those athletes who were really serious about academic life could take their pay in education vouchers, which could be used at the university whenever they wanted to use them. Large numbers of students and fans would still come to athletic events. TV would still pay big bucks for this mass entertainment. The names of universities would still be associated with big-time sports. But the deception and hypocrisy would be gone. Universities would have more integrity about their purpose.

Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too.

Robert Benne is the director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

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