Monday, July 6, 2009

The Games We (May No Longer) Play

Across the state (excepting the state’s flagship institution) the face of college athletics is changing rapidly and drastically. Unfortunately, in the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” it’s changing for the worst.

At the University of New Orleans, students voted down a referendum to establish a student fee to underwrite the costs of operating their Division I athletic program. As a result, their program is in limbo, as university-wide budget cuts will likely finish the job Hurricane Katrina started and eliminate Privateer athletics indefinitely (and perhaps permanently).

While Centenary (Shreveport) is not considering eliminating their Division I program, their current conversations are tantamount to elimination in the eyes of the program’s supporters. To reduce costs associated with travel and paying for athletic scholarships, Centenary’s Board of Trustees has proposed that Centenary move down to non-scholarship Division III, which has more regional competitive options than does Division I (Centenary’s current conference membership requires them to travel to the Dakotas, Indiana, Missouri, and Michigan). The move down from Division I to Division II is considered a move towards a less prestigious division, and one that would negatively impact recruitment for a university whose student body is composed of nearly 30% student-athletes.

At Southeastern Louisiana (Hammond), they have eliminated the men’s tennis program, impacting ten student-athletes on scholarship. Their tennis program won the Southland Conference championship as recently as 2006.

Southland Conference competitors Nicholls State (Thibodaux) and McNeese State (Lake Charles) will face substantial NCAA penalties due to poor performances in the APR (Academic Progress Rate) reviews, and because of widespread budget cuts, their departments will struggle more than ever to expand their academic services and support for student-athletes. On the plus side, the reduction of scholarships associated with APR penalties (Nicholls will lose scholarships in 6 sports, McNeese in 8 sports) will help their budgets, but their coaches and administrators would much rather not have the problem.

At the University of Louisiana-Monroe, President Jim Cofer has been rumored to cut the student fee allotment to athletics, and University of Louisiana-Lafayette President Joe Savoie has cut their budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well.

In a state whose institutions operate among the lowest budgets in Division I athletics in the country, these budget cuts are not “trimming fat.” They aren’t even trimming meat. We’re talking about trimming bone from bone, and perhaps even extracting marrow.

Truth be told, I am the first to admit that athletics is not the most crucial concern in higher education. Frankly, the University of Louisiana System’s decision to raise the funding of its member institutions in 2008 to 5%+ of the Southern average was a much more important decision than any coach or athlete has ever made. And the work that student-athletes perform in their classrooms and communities outweigh the importance of the decisions they make on the field and on the court many times over. However, as Hall of Fame basketball coach Dean Smith famously quipped, athletics is often considered “the front porch of the Academy,” and if higher education in the state is to be judged by the state of its collegiate athletic programs (save for the state’s flagship, largely immune to budgetary problems) then Louisiana Higher Education’s front porch will need much more than a good sweeping around before it resembles a gateway to a stately mansion.

Gov. Jindal’s posturing (and rumored preparation for a presidential run in 2012) about refusing federal stimulus funding, and GOP house legislators’ decision to vote along party lines (all House Republicans voted against SB 335), which would have nearly halved the proposed $200 million cuts to higher education in the state have placed the state’s institutions in a perilous predicament. We aren’t talking about less than immaculate front porches as gateways to mansions, but dilapidated front porches which lead to shotgun houses. Whereas in most parts of the country, state legislators pride themselves in their funding of higher education, in Louisiana, adequately funding higher education is considered wasteful spending.

I know better. And so do the people of Natchitoches and Northwestern State University. Among my most treasured memories in my time as a student-athlete at Northwestern is the fall of 1998, when the entire City of Natchitoches rallied around the success of the university’s football team. The citizens and students packed the stadium on the weekends, and it seemed that the entire city was awash with purple and white (and not gold, for a change). Furthermore, the three extra Saturdays of home football games were a boon to the local and regional economy (anyone needing evidence of this should read a recently released regional economic report which states that Northwestern State’s impact on the 10-parish area it serves is $352 million annually). The next year, enrollment applications at the university increased substantially, as they did in 2006 when Northwestern State beat Iowa in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And given that athletics offers Northwestern State and the City of Natchitoches so much to be proud of, provides so much service to the local community (NSU student-athletes provide more than 2,000 hours of community service hours every year), one thing is certain.

Budget cuts to Northwestern State University and to Demon Athletics hurt Natchitoches.

So while Demon Athletics makes no plans to cut scholarships to deserving student-athletes, cut teams, switch divisions, or make any other drastic changes to its plans to accommodate the impending budget cuts, it also means that Demon Athletics will struggle to grow. And so will its plans to better and more comprehensively serve and represent NSU, the City of Natchitoches, and north central Louisiana.

As an alumnus, former student-athlete, faculty member, and athletic administrator, I’m proud to say that our one saving grace in the midst of this global economic recession is that pride in Northwestern State University and Demon Athletics has not receded. And though the decisions made in Baton Rouge may discourage, dishearten, and frustrate us mightily they have not defeated us.

After all, by our own words, “Victory is on Our Side!”


Georgie said...

And you thought Arizona was bad...

Patrick said...

It really makes me sad that when it comes time for belt tightening, the beaurocrats immediately go to higher education. If they really had any testicular fortitude (read: balls) they would stand up for education. I mean, after all, the road out of our current state is a better-educated work force and more people with better ability to make money to put back into this country, not poorly-educated people who will be sucking at the governmental teet.