The other church and state?

A response that we got to yesterday’s post about keeping stories about sports program expansions separate from stories about academic program cutbacks at the University of Missouri challenged us (and others, perhaps) to peer over the edge of the box we’ve been thinking in and allow our thoughts to spill over to the outside.

Marc Powers, a person we sometimes cite here on political matters, also thinks about collegiate sports. He probably thinks about a lot of other things too—we have long suspected he is a multi-dimensional individual. Here is what he said about yesterday’s post:

“My reaction to the coverage of the university’s budget cuts/football stadium improvements was the exact opposite of yours, as I was quite annoyed at the news outlets that ignored what to me are the obvious links between the two.

“Although private contributions earmarked for the athletics by the donor can’t be spent elsewhere, other substantial sources or revenue generated by the athletics department, such as ticket revenue and broadcast licensing fees, get plowed back into the department only because the Board of Curators say they do.

“It was within the curators’ power to decide that the University of Missouri Press or any of the other things they cut were more important than football and to use some of the profits generated by athletics to support the UM System’s core functions. But they didn’t, and to me it’s totally legitimate to critically examine the priorities set by the curators.”

Well, now.

Is Marc the only person who has thought of that? And how should the phrase “student-athlete” enter that discussion? Note that the first half of the phrase is “student.” It’s a phrase athletic departments like to use to make sure the public knows that the men and women they see involved in athletic endeavors aren’t just there to play games. They’re there to get degrees. And the University of Missouri takes a lot of pride in the percentage of student-athletes who get degrees.

But here’s a question that pops to mind based on Marc’s response. At a time when intercollegiate athletics are becoming bigger and bigger-money operations while funding for academic programs has grown tighter and tighter, why shouldn’t schools look to the athletic department to make a contribution to the overall university budget—to the “student” half of the phrase?

It might seem to an outsider that higher education has created a structure in which athletics and academics are as separate as church and state and the separation is as devoutly maintained as the church-state separation is maintained.

It might be argued that it would be naive and impractical for higher education institutions to end the status of athletics as a kingdom. But suppose this:

Instead of increasing student fees to make up for lack of state government support, suppose an extra dollar was added to ticket prices for athletic events with that dollar going to academic programs. One dollar per ticket would be enough at the end of the football season to keep the University of Missouri Press alive. Or it might keep ten faculty members that are otherwise among the 180 people the University plans to to lay off.

The legendary bank robber Willie Sutton supposedly said that he robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Sutton denied in his autobiography ever saying that. But what he did say in that book was, “Go where the money is…and go there often.”

Marc suggests university curators go where the money is. We thought his perspective might provoke some thoughts not only as we continue covering higher education funding issues but as colleges and universities wonder how to ease their financial problems.

After all, what is a football stadium? It’s just a great big box. Marc suggests there is value in diverting our gaze from the playing field at at the Memorial Stadium box in Columbia where the student-athletes play to the land to the north, the place where the student-athletes study and to think of how the two areas are more one area than we sometimes think.

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