US uni­ver­si­ties pre­pared to pay high price for sport­ing suc­cess

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­

The head of one of the US’ largest univer­sity sys­tems has re­it­er­ated his com­mit­ment to sport de­spite a scan­dal that had its roots in the death of a foot­baller and led to the res­ig­na­tion of the flag­ship cam­pus’ ­pres­i­dent.

Robert Caret, chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land, told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that the enor­mous wealth con­cen­trated in ma­jor US col­lege sports made them al­most im­pos­si­ble for higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions to con­trol.

“The money be­hind big-time col­lege ath­let­ics is a prob­lem,” Dr Caret said. “I don’t think there’s a pres­i­dent in the coun­try that wouldn’t say that.”

Dr Caret was speak­ing amid the con­tin­u­ing fall­out from the death of 19-year-old Jor­dan Mc­Nair (pic­tured be­low), a Univer­sity of Mary­land Amer­i­can foot­ball player who died in June 2018 of al­legedly un­treated heat­stroke suf­fered at a gru­elling team prac­tice.

De­spite the find­ings of an in­ter­nal study that de­scribed an abu­sive cul­ture in the foot­ball team, Mary­land’s gov­ern­ing board of re­gents voted to keep the foot­ball team’s head coach, D. J. Durkin. The cam­pus’ pres­i­dent, Wal­lace Loh, re­fused that rec­om­men­da­tion and then an­nounced his own re­tire­ment at the end of the year. Af­ter an out­cry on cam­pus and be­yond, Mr Durkin was fired and the chair­man of the re­gents, James Brady, an­nounced his im­me­di­ate res­ig­na­tion.

Dr Caret said that the case may have ended badly but was hardly unique. For the past three decades, univer­sity lead­ers have worked through the Knight Com­mis­sion on In­ter­col­le­giate Ath­let­ics to draft re­ports full of rec­om­men­da­tions for im­prove­ment. “But none of them have ever been able to im­ple­ment any of the rec­om­men­da­tions they make”, Dr Caret said, “be­cause it’s just too legally or po­lit­i­cally dif­fi­cult to do.”

Mean­while, the ben­e­fits of par­tic­i­pat­ing in col­lege sport are just too great to pass up, Dr Caret said. The mil­lions of dol­lars each univer­sity re­ceives are an im­por­tant el­e­ment, he said, although much of that money is rein­vested into the teams. In­stead, he said, the chief value of big-time col­lege sports is rep­u­ta­tional, mak­ing the in­sti­tu­tion look at­trac­tive to out­siders and en­cour­ag­ing alumni to feel con­nected and to do­nate.

That is es­pe­cially true of mem­ber­ship in a ma­jor col­lege foot­ball con­fer­ence, Dr Caret said. “The pos­i­tive side is that you’re in a peer group you want to be recog­nised as be­ing a mem­ber of.”

In 2012 Mary­land moved its foot­ball team from the lo­cal At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence into the Big Ten Con­fer­ence, based near Chi- cago, seek­ing greater rev­enue. This shift ap­pears to have been as­so­ci­ated with the greater pres­sure for suc­cess that led to the de­vel­op­ment of an abu­sive cul­ture.

Dr Caret said that, while foot­ball needs on­go­ing re­form, it should not be aban­doned.

“If you scale Mount Ever­est, there are dan­gers; if you play foot­ball, there are dan­gers,” he said. “I think we have to be forth­right as we learn more about the dan­gers and try to mit­i­gate them.”

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