Week of February 19, 2021

 

TOB and PAL after bringing the heat each and every week.


What is the *Point* of College Sports?

For decades, athletics were seen as an integral part of most college campuses. Sure, there were outliers – like one-time Big 10 football powerhouse University of Chicago deemphasizing athletics and dropping football in 1939. But for the most part, college sports have had a good run. 

Sometime around the 1980s, though, college football and men’s basketball went from big money to stupid big money. Around the same time, public colleges started to lose public funding as a share of their overall revenue. Tuition went up. Competition for admissions went way up. And over the last few years we have found ourselves in this perfect political storm: football and men’s basketball generating a lot of money, which subsidizes the other sports, while football players and men’s basketball players don’t get paid. As it happens, most football and men’s basketball players are persons of color, and most players from most of the other teams are white (especially in the so-called country club sports). 

But that’s not all, because while football and men’s basketball subsidize the country club sports, so does the campus at large. Public funding and student tuition covers the deficit that most college athletic programs run each year. This has led colleges to cut smaller sports, especially smaller men’s sports, in order to reduce budget deficits. But it hasn’t been enough at most schools.

Then, in 2019, the USC/Stanford college admissions scandals brought to light an ugly truth that had been a poorly kept secret: upper-middle to upper-class, mostly white parents have been gaming the admissions systems for decades by guaranteeing their children admission to top colleges, and at least partial scholarships, by having them compete in low-participation sports. Like fencing. And crew. And field hockey. And lacrosse. And synchronized swimming.  Nowhere was this more prevalent than California. The top 4 colleges by Olympic medals are: USC, Stanford, UCLA, Cal. 

Sure, these Olympic medal winning athletes are world-class athletes who come from all across the world to further their training while getting an education. But there are also the kids who fill out those rosters, not with any realistic aspiration for Olympic glory, but to get into a top school and enjoy the perks of a scholarship.

Stanford, in particular, has dominated the country club sport circuit, having won the 25 out of 26 Directors Cup awards since its inception in 1994. The Directors Cup is an annual award given to the college “with the most success in collegiate athletics,” as determined by a points system “based on order of finish in various championships.” After finishing second in the first year it was given, Stanford has won the Directors Cup every single year – 25 times in a row. A large part of their success are the Olympics sports, yes. But it’s also the fact that Stanford has subsidized a massive athletic department – not just in terms of world-class facilities, which they of course have, but also in terms of sheer size – 36 athletic programs, as far as I know by far the most in the country (Cal is way up there at 27; most schools have around 20).

With all that backstory in mind, this article about Stanford’s decision to cut 11 programs and the uproar that has ensued is fascinating. The news was released last summer. After this year, Stanford will cut men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling. “The 11 sports represent roughly one-third of the school’s 36 sponsored athletic programs, account for 240 athletes and include programs that have produced 20 national titles and 27 Olympic medals.” 

This almost happened about a decade ago at Cal – most notably to baseball. But Cal Baseball raised $10M and saved itself, at least for now. Stanford’s sports tried to do the same – raising enough money to endow the sport in perpetuity. And some have succeeded at raising that money:

In a six-month-old fundraising effort, team leaders have raised pledges of $40 million to fund the 11 discontinued squads, and at least three of the teams have raised enough to self-endow, fully covering their operating expenses permanently.

Wow, hey, nice job. So now those sports are reinstated, just like Cal baseball was, right? Well, uh:

Presented with this information, university leaders are steadfastly committed to their decision, showing no signs of restoring the teams.

Oh. Stanford claims a budget crisis – a $12M deficit, to be specific, and also claims cutting these eleven sports will save it $8M annually. But if the sports self-fund, doesn’t that solve the budget issue? Nope.

Using the university’s own financial figures, 36 Sports Strong generated a study to show that the elimination of the 11 sports is only a minimal budgetary impact and attributes the department’s deficit to an 84% increase in salary and benefits over the last decade, much of it tied to football and men’s basketball. On Tuesday, leaders of the group presented their financial findings to Stanford provost Persis Drell during a 35-minute Zoom call, where they also pitched a proposal: Reinstate the 11 sports and give them a five-year runway to self-endow, not just their own programs but also all 34 nonrevenue sports at Stanford. “It was like we were talking to an empty suit,” says Kathy Levinson, a former three-sport athlete at Stanford in the 1970s who is leading the 36 Sports Strong movement and was part of Tuesday’s meeting. “I would say she was immovable.”

So what’s going on here, then? I know that at Cal, the land that sports facilities are on is valuable and takes up a lot of space that could go to more academic buildings or student housing, an especially important concern in Berkeley, where the housing market remains spiked. But have you ever been to Stanford? There’s room there. A lot of it. They don’t need the land. There’s another theory, though:

Many members of 36 Sports Strong theorize that the university, in part, eliminated sports to create admission flexibility. Stanford is one of the few colleges in the U.S. at capacity academically. In this theory, the university would now have the freedom to fill classroom spots occupied by athletes with those who may generate more tuition or carry a higher academic acumen. Stanford’s athlete population was one of the highest in the nation at 12%, or one in every seven students. “Maybe there was concern that 12% of the campus population was too much,” says Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist based in California and a Stanford graduate himself. “The university admission process is trying to custom-craft a campus community.”

Aha. Stanford denies that allegation. But I don’t think I believe them – do you? Because now we come full circle. Is Stanford embarrassed by the admissions scandal and the ugly truths it revealed about how many of Stanford’s 36 sports are used to leverage admission for kids who are not otherwise qualified? Is Stanford trying to pull a 1930s University of Chicago and de-emphasize athletics? Are athletics still important to a college campus? What about when the sport is lucky to get a handful of spectators per game? Because if this isn’t about that, then why would Stanford deny reinstatement for these sports, especially the three that have already raised enough money to self-endow forever? 

Now, I get why the alumni of these sports and the current athletes and their families are upset. But that $8,000,000 they are saving, conceivably though not actually, could be redirected to the revenue generating athletes at an average of about $90,000 per year. Or it could be used to reduce Stanford’s outrageous tuition. Or fund important research. Or do so many important things besides guarantee admission to a top university to someone whose parents have the money to get them into fencing at a young age. I mean, look at that photograph of the Stanford men’s crew team at the top – do those look like world class athletes to you!? 

I don’t know, Stanford’s decision seems like a step in the right direction, if you ask me.

Also, Go Bears! -TOB

Source: “‘This Is for the Next Generation’: Inside the Fight, at Stanford and Beyond, to Save Olympic Sports,” Ross Dellenger, Sports Illustrated (02/12/2021)


Wherever You Can Find Ice

Saw this story in the NY Times, and I wondered if this would’ve even made it into the St. Paul or Minneapolis local section of paper. Still, I’m a sucker for a back-to-basics story. 

The premise: a lot of ice arenas are closed in the New York area, so people are finding other places to play hockey. These backyard rinks run the gamut: some cost a couple hundred bucks, while other folks go all out. 

Per Kevin Armstrong:

First-timers learned to negotiate inconsistent thaws and freezes, and anxious hosts added umbrella insurance on top of homeowners insurance in case injured visitors filed lawsuits. Like-minded neighbors knocked down fences to share space for rinks, while others complained about noise created by pucks crashing against wooden boards. With ice time at a premium, backyard rink owners were flooded with requests for open skating times.

One person who was in the perfect position for the unexpected D-I-Y rink boon: 24 year-old Dylan Gatsel. He developed a prototype backyard rink kit a couple years ago. EZ ICE Rinks sales are through the roof.

These outdoor rinks in backyards have been a longstanding tradition in Minnesota. I skated on backyard rinks all the time growing up. Three of my five siblings build rinks and make ice every year. 

I wondered this fall if the pandemic couldn’t have been a once-in-a-lifetime nostalgia marketing opportunity. High school hockey is huge in Minnesota, with over 100K fans attending the 4-day state tournament in the Xcel Center in downtown St. Paul. I’m guessing that’s a no-go this year. They should’ve brought it back to the basics this year and had all high school hockey games on outdoor rinks, including the state tournament. The documentary all but shoots itself (you can already see ESPN sending SportsCenter there), the merch sales would’ve been insane, and it would’ve celebrated everything Minnesotans like to identify as. 

That could’ve been sweet. – PAL 

Source: With Indoor Rinks Closed, Players Turn to ‘Speakeasy Hockey’, Kevin Armstrong, The New York Times (02/15/2021)


A Good Headline Matters

I have no strong feelings on Blake Griffin. He was possibly the last truly great men’s college basketball player (for me, only Trae Young comes close). He had good dunks and he was funny-for-an-athlete. He sneakily evolved as a player, and I thought his series against the Warriors in 2014, when the Clippers beat the budding Warriors dynasty in 7 games in the first round, literally in the midst of the Donald Sterling scandal, was really good. 

I say this because the Pistons announced this week they’d be sitting Blake while they try to find somewhere to trade him. The dude is only 31, but when so much of your game is built on athleticism and you suffer a series of lower body injuries, 31 suddenly seems very old. And when I first heard the news I shrugged. He was traded to Detroit just over three years ago. January 2018! And I had basically not thought of him since.

Ordinarily, I would have never read more than a tweet-length message about this story. But as I said at the top, a good headline matters. And when this news hit, I saw a really good headline:

Well, that piqued my interest. And damn if the article wasn’t thought-provoking. It was interesting to read a Detroit native’s perspective on Griffin’s 2+ seasons in Detroit:

If Griffin ends up in the Hall of Fame — and I think he will — he’ll be remembered as a Clipper. However, in Detroit, I think it’s safe to say the people saw him as one of them. Griffin arrived in the Motor City with a “Hollywood” label. There were the commercials, the comedy and the high-flying antics. They disguised the fact that he’s a Midwesterner from Oklahoma. When Griffin was on the floor for the Pistons, he truly embodied the grit that the city loves to see from its athletes. He played through injuries and pain. He dove for loose balls. He got in opponents’ faces. When there was very little to be thankful for in regards to basketball in Detroit, Griffin swooped in and gave the best version of himself to a franchise that didn’t always deserve it. Griffin gave everything he could to Detroit when he was able to. That shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s a nice tribute, and a nice piece of writing. -TOB

Source: How Should Blake Griffin Be Remembered in Detroit?James Edwards III, The Athletic (02/15/2021)

PAL: Dude, thank you for calling out the headline. A good headline can absolutely make me stop, and I feel like a lot of sites gave up trying a long time ago. Agreed on the quality of writing. I liked the angle, too. 


NBA Janitors

TOB’s take on the importance of a headline was in my head as I perused this AM and came upon this story about former NBA first-round draft picks trying to get back to the league and the perspective shift that requires. Excellent read. 

The idea is that these dudes drafted in the mid-to-late first round are super talented players with skill sets centered on being focal points on a team. When that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason (bad play or bad luck), and they find themselves out of the league, a shift likely needs to take place in their game in order to make it back. It’s not necessarily about putting up huge numbers in the G League or elsewhere. As Laker Alex Caruso (undrafted) put it, it’s about understanding the job you’re interviewing for. 

Per Jordan Teicher:

Lakers guard Alex Caruso went undrafted in 2016, but in a November appearance on The Old Man and the Three podcast, the former G Leaguer explained the lesson non-stars need to learn in order to fit in: “They don’t realize the position they’re trying out for. It’s like going to a job interview thinking you’re going to be the CFO of the company and they’re looking for someone to clean the bathrooms.”

Caruso represents an interesting wrinkle to this story. The expectations connected to an undrafted vs. first round draftee that didn’t make it on the first go-round. 

Again, from Teicher: 

The likes of Danny Green, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Seth Curry improved in the G League before sticking in the NBA. However, those success stories are usually about undrafted players or second-round picks, not people who enter the NBA with a first-round pedigree.

“There is a stigma attached with a guy who didn’t make it the first go-around,” said Jim Clibanoff, director of scouting for the Denver Nuggets. “It’s such a recalibration for some of these kids. … How does the kid respond to it? We talk about hunger and desire, and that manifests itself in how you react to adversity.”

Good read. – PAL 

Source: Getting to the NBA Is Hard, but Getting Back May Be Even Harder”, Jordan Teicher, The Ringer (02/16/2021)


4,560

With fatherhood less than a trimester away, I find myself thinking about my dad’s hall-of-fame run as a sports dad and the kind of sports dad I hope to be. Check it out here to see my rudimentary math skills on full display. Here’s a taste:

Parents are like driving instructors when it comes to their kids’ emotions around sports. They ride shotgun while the kiddos take the wheel. The kids try their best to navigate the highs and lows of the wins and losses, to get the feel for triumphs and slights, all the while mom or dad are ready to take control, slow down, and get everything pointed back in the right direction if things get out of hand. 

Game in, game out. Every drive home maneuvering around every bad call, success, substitution; every interaction and how it proved so-and-so really did think such-and-such. 

The more I think about it, maybe the teenage years are the emotional equivalent of teaching the kid to drive a stick shift. 

Full story here. -PAL 


Video of the Week


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week Durand Jones & The Indications – “Giving Up”


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“I wanted to eat a pig-in-a-blanket in a blanket.”

-Kevin Malone