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Sports and Academics at College

August 28, 2013

In the August 26, 2013 issue of The New York Times, an article about the University of Louisville’s meteoric rise in sporting prominence appeared on the front page.  Written by Steve Eder, Richard Sandomir, and James Andrew Miller, “Louisville’s Made-for-TV Sports Boom” profiles the school’s transition from perennial doormats to a football powerhouse, set to officially join the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 2017.

How did this happen when, as the article notes, Louisville wasn’t even the biggest college sports town in the state?  (That would be Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky and its storied basketball team.)  According to Eder, Sandomir, and Miller, the school’s improving sports fortunes can be directly tied to a deal a made with ESPN back when it was a member of Conference USA:

What ESPN needed for a new Tuesday night franchise were teams that craved exposure but knew they would not get it on Saturday afternoons flooded with more than 100 games.  Conference USA jumped.  Before the 2001 season it signed an eight-year ESPN agreement, reportedly worth about $80 million, that included at least 10 televised games each year, including games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Louisville in particular was eager about the deal, and the cash register has been ringing ever since.

More money than ever has been poured into Louisville’s athletic programs: not just the revenue-producing sports, but also rowing, swimming, and other less profitable sports.  The upshot is a healthier sports culture, with brand new facilities and nary an empty seat.

However, the article also quotes several Louisville faculty members who are concerned about the school’s heightened focus on athletics.  Although several are professed fans of the school’s teams, they fear their university may be promoting sports to the detriment of academics and student facilities.  Louisville, as a university, has an educational mission, and pouring money into sports could possibly undermine that mission.

This article got me thinking about my own school’s athletic culture.  As a student at Carnegie Mellon University, I can safely say that CMU’s athletic culture is nothing like Louisville’s.  I couldn’t name a single player on the football team or the basketball team.  I don’t know if CMU has a swimming or rowing program.  If it weren’t for the fact that everything here is Scottish themed, I’d probably not even know the school’s teams’ nickname (the Tartans).

Here’s a perfect summary of sports culture at CMU: the football team plays at Gesling Stadium, which is basically a couple dozen rows of bleachers attached to the parking garage.  It’s a pretty small venue, but even then, it’s nowhere near full on game day.  It actually gets larger crowds when nearby Central Catholic High School plays football games there.  Presumably, Central Catholic has nowhere near as many students as CMU (about 12,500 when undergraduate and graduate students are combined).  Yet they draw larger crowds.

And none of that bothers me.  I’m perfectly fine with a dormant sports culture at CMU.  Even though I like sports, I have no problems with the lack of visible sports at school.  But then, I’m a bookish type.  I prefer that CMU is better known for its computer science program and fine arts school than it’s football team.  Given the choice between a good academic reputation and a good athletic reputation, I’d taken the former every time.

That’s not to say I think athletics are useless to a university.  Schools have to get their names out there, and in today’s fractured media landscape, sports are still one of the broadest ways of advertising.  And they make the alumni (and their checkbooks) happy, and that’s always a plus.  But the key is, they have a place, one subservient to academics.  I don’t know what exactly the University of Louisville plans to do with their increased exposure, but I’ll side with the concerned faculty and hope it emphasizes the “University” part of the name.

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