Monday, March 8, 2010

A Friendly Criticism of Dave Zirin

In response to Dave Zirin, author of several books including What's My Name Fool?, regarding his article on athletics and public ed entitled "How Sports Attacks Public Education" found here:

Hey Dave,

Love your work, but felt compelled to comment, given my unique position as a Director of Development who raises money for a Division I athletic department and a faculty member at a university experiencng severe budget cuts. I think it is very important to realize that cuts to higher education in the context of college athletics proliferation, though often problematic, are not as correlative as your article suggests. I offer an example from close to home.

Last year we installed brand new turf at our football stadium, Turpin Stadium, at a cost of $1.065 million. Representatives from our university, city, and region, as well as political representatives from our region lobbied effectively to receive that earmark for a number of years, and much of that work pre-dated the economic tailspin we currently find ourselves in. Could the state have decided that it is more important to use that money to balance a $5 billion deficit, or even to allocate it to the university for a different, more “academic” purpose? Perhaps. Would it have? Probably not … $1 million isn’t going to balance such a large budget deficit and the work needed to be done (old turf needed to be replaced, this wasn’t done for vain purposes). At the same time, our campus, with only a budget of $41 million from the State of Louisiana, braced for a second consecutive year of multimillion dollar cuts in the middle of a three year, 40% cut proposed by Governor Bobby Jindal and a commission he assigned to study the future of higher ed here. As we braced, even in our own department, for personnel and operations cuts, that new field stood as a beacon of eked out progress on our campus. And this year (a winless, 0-11 season, btw, under a brand new coach) we had tens of thousands of people visit the stadium and enjoy the field, and alumni who took immense pride in it. And the field wasn’t visited only for football games, but band competitions, high school football games, intramural games, and much more. The expenditure didn’t go to “academics” but it did go to the mission of the university, which is to provide a well rounded experience and education for all our students. At many universities, the athletics department’s mission is wedded to the university’s, as it is here at NSU.

Meanwhile, other areas on our campus received multimillion dollar earmarks, ones that had nothing to do with athletics. While an athletic department’s success can be measured (and is, that’s the whole point of what we do) what I don’t hear is critics raising a stink over an underperforming academic program getting a new building, or a historical building on a campus being gutted to move an already functional area, when the original area works fine, or renovations of already very nice homes and offices, etc. Many many more millions are wasted in this fashion, for vanity's sake, but athletics remains an all too visible, and arguably facile scapegoat, which is especially problematic because athletic departments give educational opportunities to so many minorities who are perceived to be interested in college only as a means to becoming professional athletes.

Regarding a couple of your claims:

1) “Friedgen also gets perks like a $50,000 bonus if none of his players are arrested during the course of the season.” I hope you’re jesting here J If you’re referring to the practice of offering non-performance incentives to coaches’ salaries, then I would offer this: NCAA student-athletes graduate at a higher percentage than non-student-athletes. NCAA coaches recruit students to universities that are more likely to graduate than their peers, even with their considerable challenges in scheduling and time management. And it appears that they are better at recruiting students who will graduate than people whose full time job is to help said students graduate. Furthermore, your statement feeds the negative stereotype that young black men, enrolled in college or otherwise, are apt to be arrested, and when they are not, this is exceptional. While it is more likely that a man age 18-25 will be incarcerated than go to college statistically, if this were an attempt to poke fun, that’s risky, considering that it is rooted in an immense social justice problem in this country.

2) “Over at Berkeley, students are facing 32% tuition hikes, while the school pays football coach Jeff Tedford 2.8 million dollars a year and is finishing more than 400 million in renovations on the football stadium.” Yes, Coach Tedford’s salary is by many standards exorbitant. But the $400 million is going to be recouped from seat licensing according to the plans detailed here: So while the regents agree to finance it, the development folks at Cal are going to have to hunt this money down privately, and they have already begun to Can we question the priorities of alumni who want to donate $225 million to rebuilding Memorial Stadium rather than donating the money to athletics? Sure. Can university officials? No way!!! If alumni want to back this initiative with private dollars, then it is their right. The university is raising private dollars for academics too, trust me (Cal has a $3 BILLION campaign going on right now and they have raised $1.44 billion of that already). It’s unfair to call out athletics for wasteful spending when they are raising the money privately AND the university is raising money for their endowment, too, and committing considerable resources to that venture as well. It’s also unfair to call this an “attack.”

3) “In truth, they are the result of a comprehensive attack on public education that has seen the system starved. One way this has been implemented is through stadium construction, the grand substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. Over the last generation, we’ve seen 30 billion in public funds spent on stadiums.” Not sure of your logic here. First of all, Coates and Humphreys’ analysis was on professional stadiums. Are you implying that projects like the one at Cal are like the ones Coates and Humphreys analyzed, because if so – and I strongly suspect your readers by and large have not read this study – this is a false implication based on the study you are citing. If you are implying that projects like the one at Cal are like the ones mentioned in this study, then again, this is a false syllogism, given Cal’s efforts to raise private money (professional sports owners expect municipalities to just fork this tax money over). By comparison, local economic development studies have shown that our university has an $8 return for every dollar invested in it by the state, and that our athletic department has in between a $60-$65 million regional economic impact, on only a $9 mil budget. That’s definitely a real impact on this region that would crumble an already rural and economically impoverished area were it removed.

4) The title: I think it’s a bit much to suggest that “Sports” are attacking “Public Education” if not very dangerous. Far too much of what goes on on college campuses with reference to athletics is very very positive to suggest that athletics are attacking public education. It isn’t all Beer and Circus here in higher ed, much less so outside of the BCS conferences. Think of all the opportunities that young men and women have earned to acquire college degrees. All of the amazing narratives that have emerged as a result of us having college athletics proliferate as much as it has. Sure, there are problems with the arms race, and wanton proliferation of college sport that have resulted in many unintended consequences. But public education’s biggest enemy is not sport, I won’t supply my list, but suffice it to say that college athletics proliferation wouldn’t make my top 25.

Again, I am a huge fan and appreciate your work immensely. I just think that there is so much else to focus on in this society for the decline of public education other than sport. I hope this is read as food for thought rather than as an attack.

~William Broussard