Saturday, July 28, 2012

University Lunacy

The University of Louisville, a part of the tax-supported Kentucky system of higher education, is planning to build an “academic center” to serve its athletes. Located in the football stadium, it will be called the Academic Center of Excellence. The cost: a cool $8 million.

With the country in what seems now to be an irreversible recession and with tuition- and board- rates out the ceiling, the university intends to blow $8 million on a facility, which by any measure is totally unnecessary. It will have tutorial areas, labs, offices, and classrooms. These features are already on campus, just as in the case of every university.

Apparently, the facility will not have a library, so the athletes will be forced to use the existing campus library, an imposition of inordinate proportions, or simply take classes that do not require visits to the books and other resources. One might imagine a curriculum featuring volley-ball rules 101 or a top-tier course such as advanced concussion methods 501.

Meanwhile, back at the University of Kentucky, which has been busy laying off more than a hundred folks, the new basketball players dormitory is about ready for occupancy. The other one was getting old (something over 30 years). The new one cost a mere $7 million, said to be donated by a coal-mining outfit, but, of course, one always wonders about what has been said and what has been done as well as all the strings attached.

Academics have always been a problem for the schools since the athletic teams are successful or not on the basis of just the athletic ability of the players. High schools and prep schools are constantly under intensive investigation by the highly paid recruiters, euphemistically called assistant coaches of something or other, in order to attract the best physical specimens. This often means trying to wedge the athlete past the academic eligibility rules, especially since high schools are notorious for simply “grinding out” athletes, whether they can add two and two or not.

During the entire 2010-11 basketball season, the athletic director and basketball coach at the University of Kentucky tried to persuade the NCAA, governing body of all higher education sports, to approve a 6-11 basketball player from Turkey, who had played professionally (for [gasp] money) in Europe and just might help UK win out in the Final Four. This made him a professional instead of an amateur (supposedly not allowed) but that didn’t deter the UK jock-department, which, finally, was unsuccessful. The team didn’t make the Final Four.

The UL and UK things do not place these institutions in a class of slimy sports-stuff by themselves. This sleazy approach to sports is endemic throughout the country, something everyone knows. The money-under-the-table, illicit gifts, and recruiting hanky-panky goes on all the time but the trick is to not get caught.

College and university sports have never been “clean,” but the dirt is now more pronounced than ever because of the unbelievable amounts of money involved. As in the case of a lot of other corrupted things, the main culprit is television. The schools rake in huge amounts when their games are televised, the marketplace defining the action. This means that every effort, above board or not, must be made by the schools to win at all costs because TV chooses the teams/games.

Sports conferences try to even the odds for every school by establishing the distribution of the “pot,” but can do just so much. Winning is everything and this is why schools pay athletic apparatchiks, especially coaches (recruiters), millions in salaries and/or perks. For instance, the basketball coach at UK is worth close to $4 million a year, football assistants well past the $225,000 mark.

That coach’s shtick, well publicized by him and the university, is that he will prepare an incoming student for the National Basketball Association in just one year. Academics has nothing to do with it, though the players are encouraged to go to class and, perhaps with few exceptions, take courses that today’s eighth-grader could probably handle quite well. The coach does this through recruiting players that probably are already good enough for the pros, a la LeBron James, but the university experience makes them draft eligible – worth millions just in signing bonuses alone.

The UL academic center’s purpose probably is to simply keep the players eligible somehow, and how better than to isolate them from the rest of the school’s community, which is designed for the advancement of academics, something far too demanding of his time for an athlete whose future and especially that of his coaches depends on winning games, not earning grades. The modern athlete is on a 24/7 schedule at the top universities, sports-wise. It’s a rotten system that effectively forecloses scholarships for deserving students academically and awards them to athletes.

And so it goes.
Jim Clark


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