willie-taggart

University of Oregon head coach Willie Taggart looks on from the sideline during the second half of a game in October against NCAA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. After one season with the Ducks, Taggart has flown the coop for Florida State in another sign of the way universities have let athletics spiral out of control.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

On the one hand, Willie Taggart leaving as Oregon’s football coach is just another example of the employment mobility that some individuals possess.

LeBron James can move from NBA team to NBA team in search of championships … or for reasons of his own.

Reporters often move up from, say, the Register-Guard to USA Today or from The Oregonian to Sports Illustrated.

That’s the marketplace. Julia Roberts gets $10 million to act in a movie. And she can pick the parts.

But universities are different. Universities such as Oregon and Oregon State are nonprofit public institutions that receive huge chunks of state and federal money and have defined missions to serve the residents of this state.

Here is the mission statement for the University of Oregon:

The University of Oregon is a comprehensive public research university committed to exceptional teaching, discovery, and service. We work at a human scale to generate big ideas. As a community of scholars, we help individuals question critically, think logically, reason effectively, communicate clearly, act creatively, and live ethically.

What does any of this have to do with football? Or huge stadiums and TV contracts and shoe deals? Not a thing. And it’s here, where the relationship between the mission of a college oruniversity and the marketplace meet, that I draw the line.

Taggart “owes” Oregon $3 million for bailing on his contract, plus another $1.7 million that the university paid South Florida to “let” Taggart switch logos and move to Oregon.

Almost always these payments do not involve a university’s “educational funds.” Instead, it usually is a well-heeled booster who pays the bailout. In other words whether a university employee comes or goes is based upon the willingness of non-university individuals to pay the freight.

Again, what does any of this have to do with education? When was the last time Dow Chemical bought out the contract of an OSU chemistry prof to put that person to work on Dow research? Doesn’t happen.

Education: the missing piece

I listened to the radio for a couple of hours Tuesday as the Taggart story unfolded. Nobody said one word about education. Nobody noted that, maybe, a football recruit who had committed to Oregon might just want to stick with the Ducks because the person planned to study a subject in which the university excels. Maybe that “recruit” actually intended to be a student.

These players are just pawns in a “beer and circus” game in which people pay huge sums of money to support an athletic subset of major colleges and universities. Many of these players arrive with academic credentials that make them marginal candidates to succeed in college. Many of them leave without a degree (in fairness many non-athletes also move on without graduating).

Some facts:

First, a few years back the Indianapolis Star conducted research on the admissions practices of big-time college football programs. The newspaper found that the University of California enrolled “special admits” — those that did not qualify for admission but whom the college thought it was worth taking a chance on — at a 2 percent rate. For football players it was 100 percent. In other words the university was consistently admitting students with athletic ability who did not deserve to be there. As in an entire incoming recruiting class of football players.

Also, USA Today analyzed the majors selected by players in big-time college programs. One year 33 percent of the Florida State University football team was majoring in sociology, which was considered an easy one to handle given the pressures of top-level football. Two percent for the FSU student body as a whole majored in sociology.

One lower-division football coach that I interviewed a few years back noted that his institution did not allow football players to “major in eligibility.”

Oregon State, meanwhile, has been celebrating that it “saved” the $12 million that it would have had to pay Gary Andersen when OSU fired him. Inexplicably, Andersen quit first and walked away from the money. Yes, OSU dodged a bullet … but they loaded the gun and put it to their forehead.

Possible solutions

OK, enough blathering about the problems. What are we going to do about it? Here are some potential steps:

First, no university employee can earn more than the institution’s president. And no coach can pad his/her salary package into the tens of millions of dollars via money from boosters or apparel companies or for doing radio interviews. If those entities want to invest in the educational mission of the college they can go ahead and donate – and the university can use it as it sees fit. And no booster should be allowed to pay a coach’s way out of — or into — a university.

Second, no financial aid can be offered or guaranteed by an athletics coach. High school athletes are offered scholarships before they are admitted. That’s backward. Athletes should be eligible for the same pool of financial aid as the rest of the individuals who apply for admission.

Third, athletes who apply for admission should be admitted on the same basis as other applicants. Special admits are fine — the concept is consistent with the mission of American universities — but they should not be awarded at exponentially greater percentages to athletes. It is fine to consider athletic ability as well as attributes such as musical skills or a flair for building robots when making admissions decisions, but the goal should be to improve the strength of the student body — and the state and nation the university serves — not to produce victories for a football team.

Question: Should players have the same freedom of movement as coaches such as Taggart? My sense is that if the reforms I have suggested above were implemented there would be far fewer Willie Taggarts to talk about. In principle I’m fine with a student having the same mobility as a faculty member. No robotics major has to sit out a year because he or she transferred to MIT. No long snapper should either.

Should college athletes be paid? No, no and no! For those who take advantage of it a college education is virtually a priceless commodity — and in actual costs it represents six figures at some schools. There is this myth that college athletic programs are awash in cash. Not so. University athletic programs reel in lots of revenue, some more than $100 million per year. But there are virtually no profits. They spend it all.

Plus, if my suggestions were followed there would be far less revenue to fight over. Which is as it should be. Athletic programs (and music and theater and student government and the school newspaper) were designed to be extra-curricular activities to augment the educational process. The university should pay for them (and not boosters or Nike or TV networks) because they add value to the institution and the experiences of its students. They were not intended to be an entertainment industry.

What we as a society choose to spend money and time on ... shows what we value.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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