Document Type

Article

Publication Date

11-2013

Abstract

Message from President: Nearly fifty years ago, experts predicted that a chain of discount stores called “White Front” would eventually dominate American retailing in the way that other, currently struggling or now-defunct giants such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, May Company, and Macy’s once achieved substantial, even monopolistic market shares. Maybe a blanched “White Front” could not really fade, but the meteoric coming and going of such dynasties reminds us that peak moments often immediately precede declines. With the advent of the wistful autumn season, campus conversation inevitably turns to the sporty tail that seems to wag those universities that find themselves in economic dog days. With a kind of inverted confidence, even cynics assume that the intercollegiate sport gravy train will continue to roll forever. The story of economic dynasties, whether White Front or Apollo Group (owner of the University of Phoenix), suggests otherwise. Despite all the hoopla that accompanies a Saturday in Tiger Stadium or in any other major college sports venue, the signs of erosion at the college-sports support base are already visible. For one, “college” or “intercollegiate” sports are no long about cozy colleges, but, rather, about huge, powerful universities. Although it may seem a trivial point to anyone other than a grey-bearded historian, the loss of synchronization between an institution and its name or conception usually heralds its decline (consider how ever-struggling AT&T has tried to purge the semantics behind those “T”s). The college constituency at the base of the “intercollegiate” concept is no more, leaving the ladder without lower rungs. Similarly, the early conception of varsity athletics as a discourse of inclusion—as a venue where good kids could make it big or where even a modest fellow could score a touchdown—has been flipped to a discourse of exclusion. Intercollegiate sports today are open only to extravagantly overtrained and genetically lucky athletes. It is only a matter of time before that theme of exclusion seeps out and begins alienating paying fans. Then there is the “fan experience” problem: the hassle of parking, the time investment, and the easy availability of television coverage, all of which leaves stadia partially vacant, at least for “minor” games. Even the most legendary components of the Tiger game-day experience are fading. The legendary tailgates now feature largely catered or mediocre grocery-store food, the fans having lost their sense for an integrated cooking and playing experience. When institutions begin to decline, they move their outreach, step by step, down the ladder of social and economic class and caste. That is surely happening with big-time college sports, where even the pricey boxes are largely occupied not by the executives who rent them, but by rank-and-file employees who are being given a reward. The faubourg that surrounds the game would surely not qualify as a venue for the recruitment of students or professors. These and many other dilutions of “college” sports indicate that the vector is pointing in a downscale direction. That may come as good news to those who think college sports to be out of control. If college sports are too survive, they will need to broaden their appeal. University leaders could begin by asking whether the sub-texts of a game—for example, the way in which the LSU Golden Girls are presented (or exploited)—fit with the mission of a great university. Experts could look at the declining quality of food service at Louisiana stadia, a phenomenon that sends a down-classing message. Careful administrators could make a contingency plan for the day, not too far off, when an aging former player, inspired by the recent NFL settlement, decides to sue over the consequences of past injuries. Activitsts could address the appalling lack of women in the highly-paid coaching positions, another phenomenon that, sooner or later, will generate a lawsuit. Most urgently, campus chiefs could do something about the astounding economic injustice by which not only big-time players, but also players for “rent-a-win” teams undergo heavy physical assaults despite receiving no compensation. These and many other remedies would not undo intercollegiate athletics but would, rather, ensure its survival by bringing it into harmony with contemporary social, economic, and moral norms. American universities are unrivaled in the world for their unique—perhaps bizarre—success in creating multimillion-dollar co-curricular industries. The success of those industries has so dazzled their managers that the necessity for evolution has been overlooked. Those who enjoy sports and hope for them to continue as prominent parts of the educational process— as the means to the sound body in which the sound mind resides—hope that athletic departments around the nation can begin an updating process.

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