We usually think of college sports in terms of classic big-time schools, polls and bowls.
But, in fact, our athletics are intertwined with — and complicate — all higher education.
The University of North Carolina, Wilmington provides a typical recent case. The Seahawks field teams in 19 Division One sports, but unfortunately, like many colleges, UNCW athletics are in the red, so the chancellor, Gary L. Miller, assembled a committee, which recommended the elimination of five sports: men's and women's swimming, men's cross country and indoor track and softball.
Well, that produced a firestorm, especially with swimming, which has won the conference 12 years in a row and, which, financially, is about on budget. Now, by contrast, the basketball team has a deficit of a million dollars; the coach himself earns almost a half million a season, notwithstanding that the team lost two-thirds of its games and is academically on probation. Hmmm.
So why not just get rid of big basketball? Well, fans don't show up to see cross country or swimming, do they? Isn't part of the power and charm of college sports that it brings town and gown together, cheering our school on? Isn't that the American way from high school right on up?
Like a lot of his colleagues, Chancellor Miller also has to factor in the reality that his school is tilting female. Sixty percent of UNCW students are women, and the majority grows. And Title IX requires athletic percentage to reflect gender proportion.
Chancellor Miller is also being whipsawed to upgrade facilities so the Seahawks can be competitive with their rivals. UNCW is in the Colonial Athletic Association. No, it's not the Big 10, but the CAA stretches about 1,100 miles. Every college is desperate to get into a better conference and maybe even get on ESPN.
So what did Chancellor Miller, a biologist by discipline, do? Well, obviously influenced by the thousands who signed petitions, he decreed that he was keeping all sports.
But, he offered a provocative afterthought. He suggested that those folks so blithe about signing sports petitions might "leverage their passion" — which is apparently what a polite biologist says when he means "put your money where your mouth is."
We in the U.S. think, nostalgically, of athletics as integral to higher education, but perhaps they're so unusual that they should be entirely separated from the academic and simply turned into an honest commercial adjunct.
Leverage, indeed. Let alumni and local businesses pay for sports. It certainly would make a lot of college presidents happier. And passionate alumni could then sign petitions to keep courses, like medieval history and Western philosophy. Yeah, sure.