It’s easy right now to criticize big-time college sports, as the situation at Penn State has opened the floodgates, not to mention the seemingly endless list of infractions, accusations of point-shaving, boosters, and illegal recruitment activity. And I am far from the first person to call out the NCAA and universities on their hypocrisy when it comes to college athletics; fellow IHE blogger Margaret Soltan has made it her mission, it seems, to record these excesses, both large and small.
Despite all of my strong words and controversial opinions, no post will probably get me in more trouble than the one you are about to read; I am about to criticize college athletics, specifically NCAA Division I basketball. And I live and work in Eastern Kentucky. But I can’t help but call attention to the basketball tournament that took place this past Thanksgiving weekend at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. Eight Division I teams took place in this year’s inaugural tournament, including Harvard, UConn, Florida State University, and University of Utah. The resort is, obviously, offering packages to vacationers to take part in this “marquee” hoops tournament.
Of course, basketball tournaments in exotic locals are not new; there was also the Maui Invitational taking place this same weekend. But at least the tournament is being hosted by a NCAA Division I university and not a luxury resort. The Atlantis is one of the more expensive Caribbean resorts, and I wonder who is paying for the teams to play in the tournament. From what I understand of NCAA rules (which is admittedly limited), schools are supposed to pay for travel, lodgings, and food for competition, but I would imagine that the Atlantis is giving preferential rates for participating colleges. So, either schools are paying a lot of money to send their teams to this tournament or they are getting some pretty sweet benefits somewhere, somehow.
(The women have their own tournament, the Junkanoo Jam, but instead of playing on a multi-billion dollar resort, they get to play at local YMCAs.)
Either way, this tournament stinks to me, and further highlights how hypocritical the NCAA is when it comes to its rules for amateurism.
I can’t, however, completely condemn college athletics. I was a college athlete and was an assistant coach at a Division III school (both for swimming). I realize that Division III athletics and a sport like swimming are very different from big-time sports like Division I football and men’s basketball. But often when we talk about college athletics, we really are talking about all or nothing situations; either we get to keep all of the sports or we keep none of them. I think it would be a shame to eliminate these extra-curricular activities from campuses because of the excesses (ok, obscene excesses) of the two big guns.
As mentioned above, I work at a university that has benefited from a college basketball team’s success in two ways. The first was that the students decided to fund the building of a new athletic complex, with practice courts, a new swimming pool, and state-of-the art training facilities. Any student has free access to the facilities, as well as all faculty and staff. Community members and alumni can also buy memberships at very reasonable prices. As an employee, this is a huge benefit. There isn’t much to do in our small, rural town, so having access to these facilities both for myself and my family is not insignificant. Living in one of the more unhealthy areas of the USA (and economically depressed), these kinds of amenities are important to the community at large, amenities and opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise.
Perhaps more significantly, our basketball team produced the NCAA’s best-ever rebounder, Kenneth Faried, who helped lead our school to a first-round upset win over Louisville last year in the March Madness tournament. This lead to Faried being profiled in both national sports publication, not to mention receiving endless face-time on national television. A young, African-American man from New Jersey says that he loved his time here at a Southern, rural institution was incredible valuable in not just recruiting students, but in helping increase the diversity of our school. It wasn’t just that the number of applications went up immediately after the win, but the type of student who was applying seemed to change as well.
I’ve written before that diversity is something that we can take for granted but you really notice it when it’s not present in the classroom. This semester, the faces I see around campus and in my classes are more diverse, both in color, social class, and life experience. The importance of this mix of students was driven home this week when two students, one Black, one white, argued over the 2001 Cincinnati riots and the police’s reaction to it. Both of the students were from Cincinnati, but from completely different parts. It took them coming to a rural school in a different state for them to face each other and discuss these issues. And, we all benefitted from the discussion, a discussion that probably wouldn’t have taken place if the class consisted entirely of students from our traditional service area.
But is this good worth the bad? Shouldn’t there be other incentives, other reasons, to create a healthy environment for our community than wanting to support our basketball team? And, can’t we increase the diversity without a successful basketball player providing free advertizing for us? In all fairness, our Diversity Office and staff are really working hard to help and do a great job of keeping those students and helping them succeed once they arrive on campus.
Is this enough good to outweigh all the bad?