Eaten by the Athletics Beast

On July 1, E. Gordon Gee will no longer be my putative boss.

As has been widely reported, Gee was rushed into a retirement by Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees after yet another embarrassing set of off-the-cuff comments came to public attention. Gee made the remarks last December; the trustees quietly chastised him for them in March; but only after the story broke via the AP and ESPN did they decide that the clock had run out on President Gee’s time at OSU.

Personally, I thought the comments he made—about Notre Dame’s sports-crazed priests and about the Southeastern Conference’s reading abilities—were pretty funny, but the trustees—not a humorous bunch—weren’t giggling. The jokes were part of a larger pattern, and OSU grew tired of doing damage control. Gee clearly suffers from a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease, and in truth, he left the trustees little choice.

Look more carefully at Gee’s ailment, however, and you’ll notice another pattern. Almost all his cringe-worthy gaffes came when he was talking about the athletic “program.” (I like the word “program” to label what is, in fact, a vast entertainment industry—makes it sound like the French program or the math program.) His quip about OSU’s not playing the Little Sisters of the Poor, his bizarre joke about hoping not to be fired by now-disgraced football coach Jim Tressel, his impolitic analogy (made during discussion of the football team’s self-inflicted wounds) of coordinating the university’s divisions to the Polish Army—all those moments made OSU a national and even international laughing stock. And they all had to do with sports.

In that sense, Gee is only the latest university president besieged by his athletics operation. News of his departure gave President Robert Barchi of Rutgers University a respite from the public glare. Barchi was hired to direct and oversee the very complicated merger and realignment of the university’s colleges with a school of medicine and dentistry, but he inherited an athletic mess that originated in the dreadful decision Rutgers made to join the world of Big Time athletics. This may be the first athletic controversy of Rutgers’ Big Ten era, but I can assure the Scarlet Knights faithful, it won’t be the last.

Even as Rutgers was making its move to the big time, folks at Binghamton University were busy selling the soul of a fine university to pursue NCAA glory. The story of the rise and fall of their Division I basketball dreams in 2008-9 would be Macbethian were it not so tawdry. Thus the 20-year tenure of President Lois B. DeFleur ended—not with a bang but a lawsuit.

And then there was the horror show at Penn State University. President Graham Spanier was fired by university trustees for failing to confront the sexual abuse of children in the locker room of Saint Joe Paterno. In the wake of that tragedy, the NCAA levied fines against Penn State designed to ensure that the university “establishes an athletic culture and daily mind-set in which football will never again be placed ahead of education, nurturing and protecting young people.” Unstated, of course, is that athletics had been placed ahead of education, and for a long, long time.

Being a university president today is an immensely challenging task, far more so, frankly, than being a corporate CEO. Presidents are supposed to give leadership and direction to the academic and intellectual purpose of the institution, they are expected to raise prodigious amounts of money every year, and they must pursue their agenda with—and often against—groups of cantankerous faculty members and contentious students.

Increasingly, however, they are forced to defend, apologize, and post bail for their out-of-control athletic departments. Big Time college athletics is the tail that wags the university dog, and it wags university presidents right along with it.

If you read any of the mission statements of the nation’s big universities, you find variations on the same themes: teaching, research, and service. That is supposed to be what universities do. Nowhere will you  be likely to find any reference—in Latin or in English—to March Madness, BCS bowls, or divisional rankings.

Many people have called for universities to be run more like corporations, and so in that spirit, I submit that athletics is not part of the “core mission” of higher education. College sports are at best costly distractions, at worst they become scandalous fiascos.

And when university presidents have to spend their time fretting over NCAA investigations, negotiating the expansion of conferences and their TV contracts, and answering endless questions about this year’s bowl chances and next year’s recruiting class, they necessarily spend less time on the real work that universities ought to do.

Don’t get me wrong: Gordon Gee stepped in it over and over again, and he did so all by himself. Gee, along with many of his colleagues, bears his own measure of responsibility for creating the athletic-industrial beast that defines higher education now. But my own sense is that, like most university presidents, Gee had to fake his enthusiasm for college sports. Most of the time, he probably would rather have been talking about something else. And as far as I know, Gee didn’t make any bad jokes about cancer research or developments in nanotechnology, nor did he have to manage a tattoo cover-up scandal in the philosophy department.

Steven Conn is a professor and director of the public-history program at Ohio State University.

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