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Sports and Academia: Who Survives? 

When it comes to the academy, as in the university and all of those things that go with it, I have very high standards. My harshest criticisms are reserved for myself. Research scientists live and die by what their peers think of their work. When I say that I managed a funded research career of more than forty-five years in the academy, that means that in my field, my peers found my work - and the work of the students that worked in my labs - at the highest level in the field. 

I sometimes slip and apply those standards outside science - I say "slip" but I don’t mean that. What I mean is that if anything has anything to do with "university" and I’m involved, it will come up to my academic standards.  As far as I’m concerned, the reason for the Jackson Center to be excited over the St. Bonaventure arrangement is because that could and I emphasize could bring university academic attention to something in Jamestown. With that "university attention" comes scholars and scholarship, publications and recognition, and the myriad other things that universities carry with them. Lawrence, Kansas, when I studied there, had about 25,000 residents.  Today, I suspect it is home to triple that many people, and its businesses reach several westward from the center core of the University. In short, Lawrence has grown enormously while Jamestown has gone in the other direction. Why? Because Lawrence, mostly because of the University, sells the products the global world wants to buy.

I don’t care one way or another what one does with university athletics, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that St. Bonaventure basketball was any better or worse than any other college basketball program. I’m an occasional sports fan myself.  I also remember living in western New York and being very excited when Eddie Melvin brought Bill Kenville to the Clymer sports banquet. 

But living in "the university" as in teaching in higher education for as many years as I did, puts university athletics in perspective. At Hope College, where I both studied and taught, we had great times going to Division III games. The head football coach was my next door neighbor during the last two years I taught there. Before that, Hope had one guy coaching both basketball and football. He was a good guy too, but when activists on campus decided 1) that the football team should be bussed to practice rather than being forced to ride in the back of a truck, and 2) when those same activists figured that recruiting good students that also played football was a way to improve the enrollment of male students, the coaching duties for the two sports were split. Division III sports are games, as in the Olympic sense.  Kansas football was better than Kansas basketball when I was there. Basketball was hit by NCAA sanctions over post-Chamberlain recruiting. And John Hadl and Gayle Sayers were on the football team. So, that was fun; as were the Kansas relays, by the way. When I was a graduate student, university sports programs had just begun to recruit star athletes. So Big 8 (at that time) athletics were still sports. 

But to put a different light on sports, consider mid-major athletics now.  I taught at Bowling Green from 1973-2009 inclusive. During that time I was in administrative positions on the academic side the whole time. I met Don Nehlen once; and Dave Clawson called me on the phone once.  No other football or basketball coach - Jim Larranaga, Urban Meyer, Babers, none of the them -- called me as head of the department of chemistry, save for Gerry York, who is the winningest hockey coach in NCAA history. I had nothing in common with any of the rest of the coaches - and neither did most of the people who taught phys ed teachers how to teach phys. ed. I didn’t call them, either. The worlds were completely apart and I figured if they wanted to talk to me they knew how to find me.  I did know most every athletic director, and some quite well. 

The money involved it all has now caused mid-major college football to go television-whacky.  University athletics, even for marginally successful programs, are no longer sports; they are businesses.  BGSU used to play on Saturdays - sometimes at the same times as OSU and Michigan; other times a bit later or earlier. It was an outing to go to the games, enjoy the game and a hot dog, and go home happy, sad, sunburned, wind-burned, whatever. Then BG and Toledo put in lights and, ESPN gave these small schools national exposure if they played night games on Tuesdays.  Now, unless there’s a compelling reason, the stadia are mostly empty save for the bands, a few cheerleaders, and the players’ parents. The fans who used to go now watch the games on TV, if they watch them at all. But somebody must be watching the games because the money from ESPN is larger than that from ticket sales. Will football at these schools survive? Will athletics? Will the colleges? That’s a serious, open question.