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March 22, 2001


University Senate Matters, Nathan Hershey

Intercollegiate athletics started when group of students at an educational institution one day, having become bored with playing only against their fellow students, and wanting to test their skills against some other young men, challenged students at a nearby college to a game. The challenge was accepted, a site for the contest chosen, and thus began intercollegiate athletics, initiated by the students themselves. Soon after, students at one institution engaging in this elementary form of intercollegiate athletics, asked the school to provide equipment, perhaps uniforms, and even a coach. When the request was granted, the institution was now supporting the team, and it viewed the team as representing the school. Eligibility rules had to be established because the athletes were representatives of the institution. The reasons for athletics on campuses were to build sound bodies to accompany presumably sound minds, to provide recreational outlets, and to teach and develop the values of teamwork and sportsmanship, and thus benefit the student body members.

Now, a century and a half later, the major institutions engaged in intercollegiate athletics are heavily regulated by the NCAA. Its manual, while not as lengthy or complex as the Internal Revenue Code, requires similar interpretive skills. A good part of the NCAA manual is devoted to regulating recruitment. The vast majority of intercollegiate athletes at NCAA institutions, even at Division III schools that do not award athletic scholarships, are recruited athletes, rather than the students who chose the school for academic reasons. One may question whether recruited athletes as a group should be viewed as representative of the student body. Are the reasons for athletics on campus served when the student population, other than the students recruited as athletes, does not participate in intercollegiate athletics?

I turn now to University of Pittsburgh intercollegiate athletics. I served on the search committee that recommended Steve Pederson to the chancellor for the position of athletics director. I remember well the remarks of two board members serving on the committee who emphasized the need for the Pitt football team to enjoy success and to have winning seasons. The new director would have to "lighten" schedules to include enough teams that almost certainly would lose to Pitt, to create an aura of success and make possible an improved won-lost record.

Big-time athletics is entertainment, and the University, with respect at least to the revenue sports — football and men's basketball — is in the entertainment business, and seeks to maximize revenue. An improved won-lost record makes a team appear to be better and also helps to increase game attendance. Many folks find it more entertaining to see Pitt win, even if the competition is very weak, than to see Pitt lose. There is little question that six wins for a major college football team almost guarantees a bowl appearance and the associated revenue. However, when one considers the amount of revenue derived from participation in the Bowl, in which the Pitt football team appeared this past season, it is likely that the revenue barely covered the trip's expenses at best. Substantial financial payoffs come not from having more wins than losses, but from a record of success that qualifies the team to play in the choice bowl games. Such a record requires defeating top-quality opponents both within and outside the conference and, usually, winning at least eight games.

Turning to men's basketball briefly, similar thoughts about scheduling weak teams appear to influence the schedule-makers. The current Pitt basketball team's early season opponents were very unlikely to win. Pitt had great success in its first set of home games, but after those contests the team lost about half its games and was not selected for the NCAA post-season tournament. This does not mean that the athletes did not perform at, or close to, the upper limits of their talent. It doesn't mean the coaches were not capable. In short, once the early games were over, most of the competition was superior. The team's fine performance in the Big East tourney was an exemplary achievement.

Except for a small number of universities — Stanford, for example — recruiting top-notch high school athletes with good academic records is a daunting task. Pitt lacks the recruiting advantages these schools possess, and is not likely to acquire them, even with new facilities. I served for several years as a member of the Advisory Committee on the Admission of Student Athletes,

which assesses data concerning candidates for admission whose academic performance in secondary school was marginal. Based on this experience, I believe this university currently is not inclined to place its threshold for admission of athletes as low as do many institutions we compete against on the field or court. And we shouldn't, even if it means Pitt will not reap the rewards gained by schools with top 10 teams regularly. However, I am concerned that if, or when, Pitt teams perform well enough to be only a short step from the top tier, pressure will become intense to assist the move upward by relaxing existing standards, and granting admission to some dubious prospects because of the revenue and prestige that may be gained from reaching the top tier.

Paul Evans, a former Pitt basketball coach for whom I had considerable respect, said essentially the following at a meeting: There are about 120 graduating high school basketball players each year who can turn a program around. Pitt has little or no chance to successfully recruit 40 of them, given their good academic records and the great attractiveness of some of the schools that attempt to recruit them. There are another 40 Pitt should never take because of their poor academics and/or their attitude and behavior problems. That leaves 40 Pitt can realistically compete for. However, the schools that can compete well for the top 40 will also recruit the middle 40, and perhaps even from the lowest 40. The schools whose standards allow them to admit those from the bottom 40 will also recruit the ones in the middle 40. Evans said this was the real life of Pitt recruiting. Pitt supporters need to give serious thought to Evans's words.

The Senate and board athletics committees, and faculty representatives on the Advisory Committee on Admissions, will have to be vigilant if pressure escalates to put values aside for the sake of athletic success and its rewards. I can envision the comments about Pitt on radio talk shows and in the newspaper sports sections if Pitt fails to admit some highly talented prospects because of their minimal academic potential or prior behavioral problems.

I want to say a bit about the non-revenue Pitt athletic teams. I have attended recruiting functions for prospective student-athletes. The members of these teams are nearly all recruited athletes. The University does not appear to expect these teams to be ranked in the top tier nationally. The pressure on the coaches of these teams for victory is less intense, and the coaches' salaries are lower. My personal evaluation of the coaches of these teams reflects my view of their roles; for me the test is whether I would be pleased if a child of mine were to be taught by, and to play for, the coach. Having seen dozens of these coaches over 40 years, the answer for nearly all of them is a resounding "yes."

A few final thoughts:

1) Intercollegiate athletics, certainly Division I football and men's basketball, is in the world of public entertainment .

2) Universities will be "represented" by recruited athletes, even in the non-revenue sports.

3) Faculty, students, alumni and friends of the University need to realistically appraise Pitt's opportunities to regularly rank with the very top teams. To rank that high, Pitt would have to recruit and admit as students athletes currently considered to lack sufficient academic capability — athletes that many other schools currently accept.

4) Pitt, if it truly believes in the values associated with team sports, should provide athletic team experiences for larger numbers of students. To do this it needs to commit substantial additional resources to a much expanded intramural program and to provide direct support for club sports. Pitt has many sports clubs through which men and women students compete against students at other schools, including hockey, golf, lacrosse and rugby football. They receive financial assistance from student activity fees, but are largely self-supporting. The athletics department has no responsibility for, or interest in, them. The growth of club sports, largely governed by the students and unregulated by the NCAA, takes us back in time to the early days of intercollegiate athletics — an era when the entertainment was for the participants and their close friends, rather than for large numbers of paying spectators as it is today.

I hope that the foregoing can lay a foundation for further consideration within the Pitt community of the objectives of intercollegiate athletics and their appropriate role at the University.

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