Oh no, I think, as I check my E-mail in box last Friday morning. May 31: “STATEMENT BY RUTGERS UNIVERSITY.”
So what could it be this time? I have been reluctantly following the Rutgers debacle involving the disgraced basketball coach (caught on tape berating his players with homophobic slurs and threatening them with basketballs thrown at their heads), the slow-to-react athletic director, and now the controversy regarding the history of the woman named as the new athletic director, Julie Hermann. On this same morning the Rutgers soap opera has ended up on the front page of the New York Times: “Rutgers Goes From Scandal to New Crisis.”
The athletic director hired to solve the problem is herself being portrayed as part of the problem, an administrator who had allegedly fired an assistant coach at Tennessee because the coach had become pregnant, and who had also berated her volleyball players, calling them “whores, alcoholics, and learning disabled.” The Rutgers administrators, 28-person search team, and high-priced search firms now sport faces that match the Scarlet Knight mascot.
My thought — more a rant, than a carefully constructed argument — is that it can’t be any worse, and it also can’t be much better. My feeling, expressed originally in a lengthy essay on March 14, 2001, is that intercollegiate athletics are out of control, operating in a nether world that has no relation to the normal, everyday routines of the colleges they supposedly represent. To me the shame of the Rutgers affair is not that the search committee failed to adequately vet the new appointee. Rather it’s that the institution thinks its problems with athletics can be solved with a single appointee.
One of the most rational discussions of the costs and benefits of college athletics programs was contained in “The Game of Life,” the 2001 book by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University. Drawing on data and surveys of 30 small and large public and private schools (including some on Rutgers’s wanna-bes — Penn State and Michigan), Bowen concludes that high-profile sports programs are not the cash cows that some would believe. What’s worse is that the culture is spreading, as small schools emulate large schools, and athletes in low-profile sports are now recruited as intensely as the gladiators on the football field.
Two things about the Rutgers debacle got me going. First was hearing that Tennessee had to pay $150,000 to settle the score with the assistant volleyball coach who claimed she was terminated by Hermann because she was pregnant. Not that she didn’t deserve some compensation — surely the institution could have accommodated a pregnant employee in any number of reasonable ways. What got me was that an assistant coach of volleyball could rise to that level of value. I know that volleyball players love their sport, take it seriously, train hard. But please: Would the team have performed any differently if the assistant coach had been, say, a graduate student in the phys ed department? Or a recent graduate trying to see if coaching were a viable career choice?
The other rant-worthy item in the Julie Hermann fiasco was the comment by one of the “wronged” volleyball players, who said that the coach’s harsh words had ruined her college athletic experience. I always thought the one sure takeaway of competitive athletics was that it built an inner strength of character and resiliency. As the older kids taught me to say on the playing fields of upstate New York, in the 1950s, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Now a coach’s harsh words, apparently, can destroy the special experience that the college-age player has presumed would accompany her participation in the sport.
Following the initial phase of the Rutgers sports controversy, when the problem was limited to the release of the video showing the coach berating the players and hurling basketballs at their heads, I wondered if the white coach’s behavior toward the mostly black players was more racist than homophobic. I ran into a man who had played big-time college basketball and had also worked on the administrative side of the National Basketball Association. This former player, who is black, took a view that surprised me: Yes, the coach was out of line, but there could be more to the story. College athletes of today, he observed, often arrive on the campus feeling entitled and privileged — and possibly already beyond the control of the coaches.
Why not? Many of them have been groomed for their sports since early childhood. The same day I see the announcement from Rutgers in my inbox, I see another incoming E-mail, from the New York Giants Youth Football Camps. Normally I would hit delete but given my current state of mind, I decide to open it up.
The camps, for kids ages 6 to 14, feature former New York Giants and provide “non-contact instruction” so that kids “learn to run, throw, catch, defend, and compete the Giants way.” The program, which runs for a week in July at the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, also develops “athletic skills and life skills through football.”
If you think age 6 is a little young to be tutoring a kid in the fundamentals of football, then there is an “accelerated skills camp for league experienced players ages 9 to 14.” There is also an option for “position-specific football training from an expert coach.” Cost for the basic package: $459 for the five-day sessions, which run from 9 a.m to 3 p.m.
Imagine a boy being treated to a program like this at age 6, and increasingly intensive programs as he gets older. He gets recruited heavily by major colleges beginning in his junior year of high school. He arrives on the college campus with a four-year full scholarship, with alumni waiting in the wings to offer summer jobs and agents chatting with his parents to offer their services when the professional teams come calling. And now imagine you are the college coach, and you want him to change his style to conform to the team’s needs. Good luck.
I turn back to the May 31 E-mail from Rutgers. Is there another scandalous detail to reveal? Has the university retreated from its previous position of support for the new athletic director and asked her to walk the plank?
No, the E-mail has nothing to do with Rutgers athletics. It concerns a recent downward adjustment in Rutgers’ credit rating by Moody’s in recognition of its impending integration with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. “The university and its financial advisers have long anticipated that the complex challenges surrounding integration with UMDNJ could lead to a short-term adjustment in Rutgers’ bond rating,” the press release announced. “In the current climate of historically low interest rates, we expect the financial impact of this adjustment to be insignificant and well within the range of our expectations.”
The press release quoted various positive comments that Moody’s had for the merger of Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry, including this: “Rutgers will be better positioned to recruit top faculty and students and, as a result, to capture a greater share of available research funding.”
I’ll make one bet: That the dean won’t have to throw anything at the faculty and students’ heads to get their attention.