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Why athletics matter

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This entry is not an attempt to defend the larger institution of I-A sports. Rather, it is argument (expounding on some of my previously expressed sentiments) in favor of supporting a successful athletics program, in the current national climate. Every week, ESPN beams video of stadiums filled with screaming fans into the homes of millions throughout the country. Rutgers did not create this culture of sport; but for the meantime, it has to live with it. It is a large public university, and that will not change any time soon.

For far too long, Rutgers and its athletic department have responded to criticism passively at best. As Greg Schiano has noted, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease. It remains unclear what, if any, impact the increasing press criticism of Rutgers University athletics has had on public opinion in the State of New Jersey. Rutgers can't risk being caught unprepared. It must respond in kind, reframe the parameters of the debate, and communicate its message in order to make sure the public has access to every viewpoint and has the information to be able to make an informed decision.

I think this passive approach needs to be abandoned however, and Rutgers needs to go on the offensive. In a perfect world, Rutgers would not need to emphasize what a great person Tiquan Underwood is. The team's community outreach did not start yesterday, but they were humble enough to not feel the need to toot their own horns publicly. We don't hear about the frequent visits to New Brunswick-area hospitals, or about everyone on the football team that is succeeding in the classroom. This has to change, in order to drown out increasingly negative press coverage. Rutgers football has never been more successful on the field or off, yet it has never faced as much scrutiny as it currently does. No one cares about a losing team. The fact that everyone is paying attention now is compliment. Rutgers must respond in kind, with an effective message that properly quantifies every benefit of a successful football program.

Rutgers football was $5 million in the black last year, which is the statistic that will get the most attention. Why exactly is the athletic program required to run at a profit in the first place? Has anyone stuck a microphone in William C. Dowling's face and asked him why the English department is not pursuing lucrative partnerships with the private sector? In fact, Rutgers spends a great deal on non-academic pursuits. Rutgers spends a sizable amount of change on student recreation. Bands and comedians are brought to campus to entertain students. Funds are distributed to student organizations to do with as they see fit. Student dormitories have cable television.

If Rutgers did not spend money on these programs, it would not be able to attract many students. Is there a meaningful distinction between them and athletics? I would argue that far more students will be interested in the football team than the Bulgarian Students Association. If anything, athletics should be a much larger priority, as the ability to enjoy them is not limited to only a small fraction of the student body.

Similarly, I don't think it's fair to criticize student athletes for having lower admission standards than the general student body. When applying to any school, you will get a leg up if your parents attended the school, if you play the tuba, if you volunteered at a soup kitchen, if you're a member of an underrepresented minority group, or if you play a sport (among many other factors). I don't believe that, as a whole, critics of the football team want an admissions policy based solely on academic merit. Nor should they be disproportionately focusing on a group that, as a whole, is largely African-American and working class.

As long as we're on the subject of academics, let's be clear about one thing: Rutgers has a major image problem locally. The state of New Jersey exports many quality college students, and more of the best ones need to stay home and attend their state university. They cannot be blamed for leaving however. The school is sorely lacking in funds. Its academic prestige has taken a hit recently, partially because the university administration is not adept (among many other things) at manipulating non-academic factors that weigh heavily in the popular US News rankings. Mostly though, it needs to be more selective in its admissions process. The much-debated "Flutie effect", which is also clearly evident in the rise of Duke University, is one possible solution. Divided between North and South, rich and poor, the success of Rutgers football may the one thing that the entire state can unite behind.

As anyone who's seen their commercials can attest, Rutgers University just plain does not know how to properly market itself. Another unquantified benefit of the football team's success is that it is far more effective at attracting students than anything the university administration could come with by itself.

Nor does the school know how to effectively lobby and utilize its large alumni base. How many Rutgers students graduate bitter and disillusioned, owing to the kafkaesque bureaucratic bumbling infamously known as the "RU Screw", and do not form a lasting connection to their college? Where will those alumni be down the road, when the school faces more budget cuts in Trenton? They need to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Rutgers cannot seal itself off from the world, and turn back into the small private college of its past. It must embrace its role as the state university of New Jersey, and as one of the leading public universities in the nation. Doing that requires effectively moving forward, and adapting to changing societal beliefs, desires, and expectations. There will always be a cultural, intuitive divide between optimistic futurists and reactionaries yearning for the past. The one thing we can not afford is to fall on the wrong side of that divide.

Note: this entry accidentally ran early today in an unfinished state due to an error on my behalf.