Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The old college try

College athletics haven't made a great deal of sense in a couple of generations.

It sure looks like the situation is about to get worse before it gets better.

The marriage of athletics and academics has always been a shaky one in our universities. In the olden days there was something quaint about having a college team in a variety of sports, just like what took place in high school.

Then someone, someone figured out that there was money to be made. That led to big stadiums in some cases, national publicity, media attention. Better yet, the players didn't have to be paid, at least legally. The college picked up the costs of their education, period. Well, OK, there always have been problems with boosters and their $50 handshakes, but that was always tough to prevent. But for years and years, it wasn't a bad deal. The students would get an education, the university would essentially hire them to work 20-odd hours a week in return. That wasn't a great trade for the biggest stars, but for 99 percent of the student-athletes it worked out fine.

But the stakes seem to be increasing by the day. College sports seemed to start embracing marketing when Don Canham, he of the 100,000-seat stadium at Michigan, took over in the late Sixties. That's a lot of seats to sell ... so why not try to sell them, week in and week out. Other schools saw the cash involved and wanted to play too. They all got better at the process. Been in a college bookstore lately? Not many books.

And then the television coverage blew up. In the quaint old days, there were about two college football games on every Saturday. Now there are five games on at noon on Saturday, and often one on Tuesday nights. Tuesday night football? Kind of tough not to miss classes for that road trip, which by the way keep getting longer and longer.

Naturally, we all didn't stop to look at the big picture. As in, why are colleges in the athletics business, with nine-figure budgets? How far away is that from the mission statement of a university? At the big schools, we've entered a world where offensive coordinators can earn a million dollars a year. You may have realized that no one ever paid to see an offensive coordinator do anything.

Some of these colleges aren't too good at making the financial numbers work. My newspaper ran a series this week on the University at Buffalo, which would like to become a larger force in athletics. Revenues for UB in 2013 were listed at $28.7 million, while expenses were $28.6 million. That would seem to be close to breaking even, except that $22 million of revenues comes from subsidies from the university. Most schools lose money on athletics overall. Alabama, one of the major exceptions, made $34 million last year - more than UB's entire budget.

Most of the colleges believe that athletics is something like advertising for the institution, attracting students and connecting with alumni. Is it worth it? If the numbers keep adding up like this, someone might ask about that eventually. But that person probably won't be in the athletic department.

Meanwhile, the players have been fighting back a bit. They have seen the enormous revenues generated by their efforts. They've also seen their jerseys with their names sold at the bookstore and on line, and seen their image in video games. So athletes headed to court; some of them filed to form a union at Northwestern; others took part in a class action suit over the video games. The schools cling to the public line that some sort of system embracing the amateur concept is needed, even though amateurism was shown years ago to be a way of keeping money away from those who earned it.

After some frantic realignment, we've gotten down to five major conferences - especially in football. There could be more shifting in the future, as four 16-team conferences would be a neat package for football. But in the meantime, the big conferences already received permission from the NCAA to make up some of their own rules. Think it's tough for the UBs to compete now?

We're clearly headed toward something new. Maybe the big conferences will simply call student-athletes employees at some point, and treat them accordingly. Perhaps those schools will have their own playoff system in football and men's basketball, leaving the others out. (So long for those cute upsets at the start of "March Madness.") Maybe those other schools will go back to the relatively old model, forming a second tier where a college scholarship is enough incentive to attract some "second-level" players.

I'm sure it's going to be an ugly process along the way. We can only hope that the ends, in the form of a better system, justify the means.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Every December 25

Kevin Chase and I practice for a 1975 performance.
Here's a long story about a friend of mine of more than 40 years who passed away this week. The odd part of the tale is that I generally went exactly one year between visits with her.

Way back in the fall of 1973, I was just starting college. One of my high school classmates sent me a note in December, wondering if I was going to collect a few of my friends and serenade her with Christmas carols back in our hometown of Clarence on Christmas night. When December 25 rolled around and family dinners were finished, most 18-year-olds want to go running into the night with their friends to blow off steam. So I collected a couple of them, and off we went to my classmate Colleen's house - dressed in "gay apparel" in the "Deck the Halls" sense - jackets, ties, hats from fathers' collections, etc.  We rang the door bell and started singing some simple song like "Jingle Bells."

We were prepared to do two or three songs, but Colleen's family quickly invited us in and handed us beer in order to prevent us from singing. It didn't take long for a light bulb to go on. Could this scheme work at other houses?

Indeed it could. We went to a couple of male friends' houses next, and it was a repeat performance - a few off-key notes, and a beverage. Food sometimes was thrown in as well.

It was getting a little late at that point, but we opted to make one last stop at the Cullinan residence. The Cullinans had a house full of children, and Mr. Cullinan was on the school board. Therefore, practically every kid in the school district had some sort of relationship with the family. The parents were both friendly, smart people who always took an interest in other kids' activities. That was a little unusual. I remember when I won a Letter of Commodation for PSAT scores (remember those?), Mrs. Cullinan congratulated me on it when she saw me at some school function. I was quite impressed that she noticed.

I was still a little nervous about a visit to relative strangers. But, sure enough, the formula worked quite well at that location. There was a little beer and a lot of laughter over the hour or so of our visit.

As you'd expect, none of our group forgot what had happened when December of 1974 rolled around. We made a few rounds on Christmas night, and ended the night at the Cullinans. We gave them all updates on our year, and had a good time. It was the same story in 1975 and 1976. Our apparel became less formal, but no one noticed.

College eventually ended for our group of "singers," and we moved on with our lives. Still, we knew a good Christmas tradition when we saw one. We still showed up on Christmas Night when we could in some sort of combination, although distances and jobs sometimes got in the way. We dropped the other stops on the tour, but always made a big effort to visit the family homestead on Roxbury Drive. As friend Glenn said, could they even have Christmas without us? It got to the point where someone would just hand us a beer when appeared on the front step. Our singing days apparently were over, but we still turned out.

Our best stunt involved a letter to the newspaper editor from Mr. Cullinan. He was complaining about reactions to the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984, a horrible industrial accident in the chemical business. Mr. Cullinan, a worker in that industry, wrote about the over-the-top reaction of "wooly-hatted liberals." Naturally, that Christmas we showed up wearing wooly hats. Mr. Cullinan roared.

In fact, there were two things we could count on during such visits. We'd have a wonderful conversation for a couple of hours, not even recalling most the details later on. And if we brought a guest male visitor along, Mrs. Cullinan would try to match one of her daughters to him. My friend Mark, the Notre Dame graduate, barely escaped without Mrs. C. setting a date.

After a couple of decades, the Cullinans apparently started to wonder if we were coming back on a given year after such a long streak ... but we usually did.  There were all sorts of ups and downs handed out by life to all of us, but this was a nice constant. We celebrated the victories and mourned the losses. I'm not going to say this was the absolute only time of the year that I saw the Cullinans; sometimes we'd run into each other at some function like the Clarence Center Labor Day Fair. The Cullinans again were always interested in my activities.

Eventually, the visits wound down, due to moving or work or something else as the logistics turned daunting. Mr. Cullinan passed away some years ago, and Mrs. Cullinan eventually moved into an assisted living program as she lost a few miles per hour on her mental fastball. But I always sent a holiday letter to her, and made sure she got a copy of one of my books when they came out. Son Brendan told me how in her later years, Mrs. Cullinan still got a thrill of seeing my name in the paper. In fact, she loved the newspaper - if only because it reminded her of the date every morning.

When word came this week that Mrs. Cullinan had passed away, my thoughts immediately turned to those many December 25ths. Most warm Christmas memories are associated with Santa Claus and childhoods in some sort of combination. I was lucky - I didn't need a guy in a red suit saying "ho, ho, ho" to make me jolly at Christmas. I had the Cullinans. I'm sure I'll think of those good times on December 25 for the rest of my life.

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