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March 28, 1996

University Senate looks at role of intercollegiate sports at Pitt

Yesterday's University Senate panel discussion of "The Role of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Pittsburgh" dealt less with the future of big-time sports here than it did with Pitt's inadequate recreation facilities for students who don't play NCAA sports.

"If good facilities and programs are necessary to recruit intercollegiate athletes, then they are equally necessary in recruiting tuition-paying students," said panelist Julie Crowell, immediate past president of Pitt's Student Government Board.

The new student fitness center in Lothrop Hall is used by an average of 400 students daily and supports the University administration's claim that it is committed to improving the quality of student life, Crowell said. "However, it is only a step," she added. Pitt must do much more to meet student fitness needs, including the needs of its many commuter students, according to Crowell.

"We can't ignore the rapid increase and development of multi-million dollar recreation centers at other colleges and universities" with which Pitt competes for students, she said.

Another panelist, Pitt alumnus Vincent C. Deluzio, argued that the scarcity of space for intramural sports and other recreation activities reflects the low priority that the University has given to undergraduates over the years. "We have 100,000 living alumni who didn't even have a student union when they were here," noted Deluzio, an attorney who is a former president of both the Pitt Alumni Association and the Golden Panthers sports booster organization. All four panelists — Deluzio, Crowell, Athletics Director Oval Jaynes and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mary L. Briscoe — agreed that Pitt's planned $52 million convocation center should be a high institutional priority, and not just because the facility would provide a bigger, more modern basketball arena than the existing Fitzgerald Field House.

The 12,500-seat convocation center also would free up recreation space in the Field House and other campus facilities — and it would be a focal point for activities that would encourage school pride, panelists said. "As it is now, we can't even hold a graduation ceremony on our own campus," Deluzio said. "Now think about that. We have to move into the 1990s." According to Deluzio, the Field House and other Pitt athletics facilities would be an embarrassment to an NCAA Division III school, let alone a university like Pitt that competes at the highest level, Division IA. He recalled attending basketball games at the Field House during the 1980s and seeing the same wad of gum stuck to the back of the seat in front of him, game in and game out, for years.

Briscoe said she is scheduled to meet today, March 28, with a group of deans to discuss strategies for meeting the University's goal, approved by the Board of Trustees last month, of improving the quality of campus life for Pitt students. "One of the things that I will say is that probably the convocation center — if it really is not just for the revenue-producing sports, if it really does have facilities for recreation and intramurals — would in itself do more than any other single thing to upgrade our attractiveness to new students," Briscoe said.

The state has committed $13 million toward the convocation center. Pitt administrators are lobbying for an additional $17 million in state funds. Construction and design costs not funded by the state would come from private gifts; the University administration has pledged not to spend money from Pitt's education and general budget on the center. The facility is scheduled to open in fall 1998 on a site adjacent to Pitt Stadium, although construction has not begun and is expected to take 21 months, not including time spent on design work.

n None of the panelists questioned whether Pitt ought to continue competing at the highest level of NCAA sports.

With varying amounts of enthusiasm, they agreed that big-time athletics can boost a university's student recruitment, fundraising, alumni programs, media exposure and name recognition, in addition to offering opportunities to minority students who otherwise might not have the money or high school grades to quality for college.

CAS Dean Briscoe said intercollegiate athletics "does a great deal to invigorate school spirit and, I kid you not, admissions to a university." Penn State's student applications doubled after the Nittany Lions won the Rose Bowl, Briscoe noted. She recalled attending a recent academic meeting during which a University of Massachusetts dean "was absolutely in her glory because of where their basketball team stood at that time, which was heading toward the Final Four" of the NCAA playoffs.

Jaynes and Deluzio said an athletics program can be a rallying point for an otherwise fragmented university community. Part of the reason for Pitt's sub-par fundraising among alumni and non-alums alike has been its lack of success in big-time sports, Deluzio said.

n Only two of the approximately 60 audience members in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room asked questions of the panel.

One was Student Government Board representative Lee Bannister, who complained that Pitt club sports are underfunded, their only funding sources being team members' dues and an SGB-approved share of student activities fees. Often, these clubs compete against teams that have been granted varsity status by their schools, Bannister said.

Panelists sympathized but pointed out that none of them had responsibility for club sports, which come under the jurisdiction of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Leon Haley.

The other audience member who spoke up was anthropology professor Leonard Plotnicov, who was the only person at the meeting to question whether the benefits of big-time athletics justify the budget deficits that Pitt's Department of Athletics has run in recent years.

In January, the Board of Trustees released a report by a team of outside consultants that recommended that Pitt consider restructuring its athletic department and do "something dramatic" to deal with aging sports facilities and a football program that is losing $3 million to $4 million annually. Athletic Director Jaynes and Assistant Chancellor Jerome Cochran later said the consultants had used misleading data and that the 1995 football deficit was closer to $1.5 million. The men's basketball program has been running at a profit, they added.

But regardless of the exact numbers, Plotnicov called for a study of the respective costs and benefits of maintaining Division IA sports at Pitt. He cited research findings indicating that only those universities with top-ranked teams gain significant infusions of donations and student applications as direct results of athletic accomplishments. "When alumni do give [to schools with successful sports teams], these funds tend to be restricted to athletics and don't go into academic programs," Plotnicov said.

Deluzio argued against forcing the athletics department, or any other University department, to justify its existence based on whether it makes a profit. "As an institution, we lose money at what we do, which is educating students," he said. If a university community believes that Division IA athletics are vital to the institution, that's justification enough for such programs, Deluzio said.

Pressure to make money is what drives some college sports programs to take a win-at-all-costs approach, which in turn encourages NCAA rules violations, he said.

"Women's sports don't produce revenue, yet scholarships for these programs are worthwhile," Deluzio added.

Philip Wion, an associate professor of English and a member of the University Planning and Budgeting Committee (UPBC), agreed that the value of Pitt departments should not be based solely on whether they make money. But Wion pointed out that he chairs a UPBC committee that is developing a system of attributing revenues and expenses for each unit of the University.

Knowing the real costs of the athletics department and other units will make it easier for Pitt policymakers to set institutional priorities, Wion said.

n The academic success of Pitt student athletes is "an untold story," Briscoe said.

Of the 420 students on Pitt athletic scholarships last fall, 122 of them had QPAs of 3.0 or higher that term; 22 of the 420 made the CAS dean's list with averages of 3.5 or better, she reported.

The graduation rate for student athletes is higher than the overall average for Pitt students, the dean noted. A major reason for that is that athletes "have very strong and active support systems" through the athletic department.

"If a coach believes in a kid and is willing to work with that kid in order to give them the optimum in opportunities, it can work. It doesn't always work, but it can work." Briscoe chairs the Provost's Advisory Committee on Athletic Admissions, which reviews applications of prospective student-athletes who meet NCAA minimum academic requirements but not Pitt's which are somewhat higher.

"Contrary to public opinion, this committee has, I think, in eight years only turned two students down. That will be a shock to many who have a contrary opinion from the press," the dean said.

"The committee has been, I would say, more empathetic than sympathetic to the belief system in the athletic department that giving students a chance enables them to grow."

— Bruce Steele

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