October 22, 2003

Starring Catherine O'Hara as...

It's good to be a University of Nebraska coach, an assistant athletics director, or an employee in the sports-information department. Not only do they rub shoulders with the football players who are the gods of Nebraska's state religion, they are also accorded certain courtesies, such as cars provided by local dealers who are fans of Cornhusker sports teams.

Dealers, in turn, are able to purchase hard-to-come-by basketball and football tickets. The latter have been sold out for 255 consecutive games, and season tickets have been sold out since the 1960s, according to Steve Pederson, Nebraska's athletics director.

-- Jennifer Jacobson, The Perks of Coaching

Via JBJ at The Salt-Box, the above-linked article reports that not only does Pederson drive "a dealer-provided 2004 Chevy Tahoe" but "his wife, Tami, drives a dealer-provided 2003 GMC Envoy." Three other coaches' spouses (and two cheers for gender equity, because one of them of is the husband of the women's basketball coach) "also drive dealer cars."

Wow. College athletics must be huge in Lincoln, Nebraska. If I am reading this correctly, these coaches aren't even giving away tickets to dealers in exchange for cars. Rather, they are selling tickets in exchange for automobiles. Those tickets must be very highly prized indeed.

Somewhat to my own surprise -- and perhaps, gentle readers, to your surprise, too -- I find myself unable to summon up even an ounce of outrage.

To be sure, I share Eric Muller's sense of dismay over the misplaced priorities which allow the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to approve "a contract for new basketball coach Roy Williams. It pays him $632,300 in year one, and a lot more than that in subsequent years." And don't tell me this about the market instead of about choices and priorities. Yes, I know our society values basketball players over Shakespeare scholars. Our society values many people -- supermodels, for example -- over Shakespeare scholars. Is that a good enough reason for a university to get into the supermodelling business in a serious way?

And of course I can't help but note that if "it's good to be a University of Nebraska coach, an assistant athletics director, or an employee in the sports-information department," it is not so good to be a tenured professor in the research division of the university-operated museum at the cash-starved University of Nebraska.

I also can't help wondering whether U of Nebraska athletics are a money-maker or a drain on the university's strained resources (note: I am not a criminal defence lawyer and we are not in a court of law -- which is to say, I am asking a question to which I do not already have the answer). On this question, there is an interesting exchange in the Letters to the Editor at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscription-only, so no free URL). William Dowling, Professor of English at Rutgers, wrote in with this casutic comment (August 15, 2003):

Times are tough at the University of Nebraska. The Chronicle reported that the university is seeking to eliminate the jobs of 15 tenured professors due to budget cuts ("U. of Nebraska Seeks to Lay Off 15 Tenured Faculty Members," July 4). If the measure goes through, some of these faculty members will be fired outright. ...

Given the bleakness of that news, it's cheering to learn that the budget situation in Nebraska isn't so desperate that Cornhusker athletics coaches will be affected. The Associated Press reported on July 9 that, despite Nebraska's worst football season in 41 years, the university will be paying its football coaches $156,163 in incentive bonuses. Other coaches did very well, too. ...

Those who have observed the takeover of American higher education by commercialized athletics sometimes say that places like Nebraska are not universities but semi-professional franchises that maintain a few classrooms for show [IA: that's a blogworthy byte: someone should introduce Dowling to the blogosphere] ... Given the terrible budgetary situation, wouldn't it make sense simply to abolish the university and strengthen the football franchise? ...

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor of the university, responded as follows (October 3, 2003):

Critics like William C. Dowling ('Fire the Professors, Give the Coaches Bonuses,' Letters to the Editor, August 15) should know that not only is the athletics program of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln entirely self-supporting, but it contributes $1.5-million annually to our academic programs. ...

This is the belief on which the university's current budget-cutting philosophy is based: If we must cut, we will do so to the detriment of the fewest, and we will do what is necessary to allow areas of excellence to continue to grow...

I guess I'm just a wee bit sceptical of Perlman's insistence that athletics are "entirely self-supporting." Sure, they may contribute 1.5 million to the university, but what amount do they take from the university in the first place? Does that 1.5 million represent a surplus, over and above all of the expenses involved in the running of the athletics programs? Anyway, Perlman's reply doesn't quite get to the point of Dowling's letter. After all, I've no doubt that a high-profile supermodel agency could bring in millions, over and above the costs of running such a show. Is that a good enough reason to shut down academic programs in order to focus on this lucrative branch of the entertainment field?

I'm just asking.

Anyway, as I say, I'm afraid I can't quite muster the sort of indignation that the readers of this weblog have come to expect. I'm too busy thinking about the coaches and the car dealers, and wondering whether we don't have in the transactions between these two groups the makings of a wonderful "mockumentary."

You know the kind of film I am talking about: a satiric but basically humane sendup which treats the follies and foibles of its subjects not with ironic hauteur but with something like real affection. The extraordinarily versatile Catherine O'Hara might play Tami Pederson, or could perhaps be cast as the head coach of the women's basketball team. If the latter, then perhaps Eugene Levy could play her husband. Fred Willard and car dealer are a natural fit, and I would hope to see Parker Posey in some role or other. I am serious. This could be truly funny.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 22, 2003 10:38 PM

The supermodel analogy isn't quite apt, since modeling can't make the same claim as athletics to be consistent with the mission of the university to develop the talents of its students.

And I'm surprised that the football surplus is only $1.5m. If your surprise at how big football is in Nebraska is genuine, then you have no idea. I expect that surplus doesn't even count money donated by alumni whose only abiding interest in the school is its football program.

There is cause for outrage here, but it hasn't come up, either in your post or the previous one on college athletics. The outrage is the way student-athletes are treated. Kids who have no chance of going pro are recruited by coaches who know that but never say it. Once in school, their coaches make the appropriate noises about educating them, but work them so hard and evince so little genuine concern about academics, that, when the kids are released four years later, they leave at the same nearly-illiterate level at which they came in. It's gross.

Posted by: ogged at October 22, 2003 11:47 PM

"The supermodel analogy isn't quite apt, since modeling can't make the same claim as athletics to be consistent with the mission of the university to develop the talents of its students."

Agreed. I'm being deliberately absurd.

And yet. Though athletics can still claim to be consistent with mission of the university, as your comment recognizes, in the era of "big sports" (which is really a branch of the entertainment industry) this claim is increasingly untenable.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 22, 2003 11:59 PM

I thought Best in Show was amusing, but I just didn't get the musical one.

I agree with Dowling's indignation, but I'm not sure if he realizes that football is just much bigger than any sense of educational mission. Football and basketball are the only things keeping public universities going for the most part. Alumni donations at many state schools are entirely tied to the success of athletic programs. Other than reducing American interest in college sports by forced reeducation (not as bad of an idea as it might sound), I don't see any solution.

One solution might be banning high school sports of all types, actually. Another might be heavily taxing all professional sporting events.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 23, 2003 12:25 AM

"should know that not only is the athletics program of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln entirely self-supporting, but it contributes $1.5-million annually to our academic programs. ... "

I find this comment hard to swallow. First where is the supporting information regarding the financial status of the athletics programs? Secondly does the self-supporting comment extend to all athletics or simply with football?

In Tennessee during the recent budget problems the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) produced a document that detailed the spending on athletics at all the public institutions in Tennessee. Only one program generated enough funds to be called "self-supporting", that being football at the University of Tennessee. Most other programs at UT were funded by surplus from the football program. However ALL other athletic programs relied on state funding for financial existence. In many cases the required funding was in the millions. All money taken from the general funds that could have been used to repair campus buildings, pay salaries, or fund research and teaching excellence. Its a terrible thing to see the amounts when you realized that the high education facilities all took a 9% budget cut and were forced to raise tuition. But at least you can watch your last place football team in the fall... for a small additional fee. What I find ironic and saddening is that the students seem not to care when they are shortchanged in the educational department as long as they are well entertained.

However, adjuncts and tenured alike have no fear, for one school in Tennessee, East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, has less skewed priorities. It will have no football program next year. The university president decided that the program cost more than it was worth and needed to go. I am not sure where the money from the program cut will go however I would guess that most of it stays in athletics to boost the other more successful program.

Do not read me wrong; I am not a enemy of collegiate athletics. I just think that our institutions have deviated from their purpose in the last 25 years. There are countless things wrong with the system we have now, however I have seen nothing that indicates that the public really cares to see it fixed.

Posted by: Plainspoken Sam at October 23, 2003 01:14 AM

Don't forget Title IX (or maybe its Title VI). There is a federal requirement to have gender equity in college sports, so the profitable athletics programs (football and men's basketball) often pay for the other programs that, as far as anyone can see, will never bring in money (i.e., anything other than football and men's basketball).

Mr. Unavoidable is correct that alumni often only donate money to support athletics, but that can be a good thing. In getting an expansion to the Sun Bowl, my alma mater also gained new classroom and office space for the kinesiology program, and the gym got noticeably less crowded when all the atheletes were required to use the heavy-lifting gym for them in the new building. A single alumnus paid for half of the project.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at October 23, 2003 08:08 AM

Brilliant suggestion, IA. After the universities establish teams of supermodels, even I might be attracted back to academia; and it might well improve the budgetary situation as you say. Also, assuming the focus is on female supermodels, it would help with Title IX compliance as well.

I wonder why no one thought of it before?

Posted by: pj at October 23, 2003 08:12 AM

For anyone that's interested, the US Dept of Education maintains a database of sports spending and participation at most colleges, as per the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA):


The spending figures do not include capital expenditures (eg, new facilities).

Posted by: Paul Nelson at October 23, 2003 11:14 AM

I would suggest that the problem is the bigger sports. Small-time DIII sports (non-scholarship) whose coaches are on the faculty are much less of a fiscal drain and are much more consistent with the idea of the scholar-athlete than 1-A, Thursday-night football.

However, for many schools, like Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina, successful and national athletic programs have become, for better or for worse, part of the image of the school. This generates applications and alumni donations.

The problem is that so many of the schools, like ETSU, that should remain DIII in everything, want to get a chunk of the D1A money. However, there are only so many schools that can be successful - so schools like ETSU, Alabama-Birmingham, JMU, etc., spend lots of money to develop impressive programs but never make it anywhere near where Michigan is.

Posted by: at October 23, 2003 11:37 AM

Perhaps a bit of History is in order. In the 1920s Harold Lloyd comedy, 'The Freshman', the place where Lloyd enrolls is described as a "small college next to a large football stadium".

Dick Patton

Posted by: at October 23, 2003 01:29 PM

There's some evidence -- I won't call it substantial, because getting the data is damned difficult and thus there are few studies -- that better sports teams increase contributions to academic programs. See, for example, Paul Grimes and George Chressanthis, "Alumni Contributions to Academics: The Role of Intercollegiate Sports and NCAA Sanctions," Amer. J. Econ. Sociology 53(1), January 1994, pp. 27-40. Television seems to help they say, post-season play does not (which could be one small explanation for why there's no playoff in D1 football.)

Posted by: kb at October 23, 2003 04:19 PM

Supermodels? Bah!

Red blooded American males don't really care for supermodels. Who wants to chase a skinny women with an eating disorder and an attitude. On the other hand, cheerleading as a varsity sport - now that's the ticket... Just think, sweet wholesome American girls, Title IX friendly and sexual fantasies all rolled into one. That'll bring money into the place.

Uhhh. You say Maryland has already thought of this?

"Competitive cheerleading will become University of Maryland's newest varsity sport during the 2003-04 academic year, making the Terrapins' program one of the few nationally granted varsity status."


See, I told you it was a good idea.


Posted by: PatF at October 23, 2003 05:48 PM

"The supermodel analogy isn't quite apt, since modeling can't make the same claim as athletics to be consistent with the mission of the university to develop the talents of its students."

Modeling wouldn't develop the talents of the students? Do you think great beauty is simply born? No doubt there are plenty of rustic beauties in the Nebraska corn fields (or do they grow wheat?) just wanting for the polish and instruction necessary to master the runways of Milan.

This could even be an opportunity for all those LOTS departments watching their enrollments decline ('Languages Other Than Spanish," if you have to ask). Sure, training young models to say "Left turn or right" and "Where can I buy coke" in French and Italian my not be intellectually stimulating for scholars raised on a diet of Derrida and Gramsci. Then again, it beats teaching boys in baseball caps how to say "Where's McDonalds" and "I'm so drunk" in a foreign tongue.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at October 23, 2003 09:19 PM

Another advantage to training young models: academics could pick up valuable (and apparently much-needed) fashion tips.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 23, 2003 09:26 PM

Two weeks ago, Nebraska was humiliated 41-23, by the Missouri team, long-term doormat of the Big8/Big 12. Do you think the auto dealers will be taking back their cars?

Posted by: In the provinces at October 24, 2003 01:08 PM

Frolic, I was about to nominate you for head of curriculum development but then you implied that you think models have to buy coke. Educate yourself!

Posted by: ogged at October 24, 2003 01:23 PM