Sunday, October 1

The Death of the Student-Athelete

Football grows, and Students Go the Way of the T. Rex

True, it was a reputed cupcake course. But as an English major at Rutgers University, the honors student Robert Andersen couldn’t just curl up with Chaucer or Twain. The guy needed a science credit.

It was in a geology course called Dinosaurs where Andersen discovered the extinction of the Rutgers student athlete.

Outside the classroom door, Andersen witnessed paid attendance takers, who functioned as nannies, as they waited patiently for athletes, usually football players, to walk up and utter the magic password, “I’m here.”

Check, the player went to class. Check, the coach is happy. Check, the program has integrity.

“It’s just a sham,” Andersen, a senior, said Friday. “Are you truly a student athlete if there is someone who has to make sure you go to class?”

The definition gets narrower by the budget cut. At a university besieged by a fiscal crisis — with shortened library hours, staff reductions and canceled classes — Rutgers is eliminating six sports, including crew, fencing and swimming, to save $1.2 million. Nearly equal to the salary of the football coach, Greg Schiano.

“One of the saddest parts,” said Norman Levitt, a math professor, “is that some of the people getting hurt the most are the student athletes — and I’m talking about the student who gets up at 3 a.m. to row.”

“Rutgers,” he added, “is turning into a standard-issue football factory.”

It’s industrial athletics. All around the country, the quaint notion of a student athlete has been stored in a hope chest amid a fool’s-gold pursuit of big-time football.

Officials are lining up to sell their souls to join the arms race of Division I-A, right down to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University. As Forbes recently reported, the Liberty student handbook warns of “witchcraft, séances or other satanic or demonic activity.” (And yet the football program plans to leap to I-A from Division I-AA, anyway.)

Big football is a faith-based proposition. Athletic directors go rah-rah when they talk of their revenue-producing team as if to cleverly conflate it with profit-making. They are not the same.

Almost all Division I-A football programs bleed money in school colors. In the fuzzy math of college accounting, it is difficult to tell the depths of the red because many football teams put, say, laundry, outside the athletic budget ledger.

Whatever the exact total, the Scarlet Knights lost at least $3 million on football last year. As officials will say, this is the price for winning. For the first time since 1976, Rutgers is in the top 25, a ranking bound to surge after the team’s tense victory Friday night against the South Florida Bulls — a football team since 1997. For South Florida, a little-known commuter college, football was born as a branding tool.

“I would rather say it’s a rallying point, not a branding tool, for us,” Robert E. Mulcahy III, the Rutgers athletic director, said by telephone Thursday. “We’re a research university that stands on its own as an academic institution.”

Football has put that identity at risk. Campus computer labs shut down early to conserve money, but the football machine churns on with game films rolling across what has been described as a 42-inch plasma television in the locker room.

“We have a television in the locker room,” Mulcahy said. “I can’t tell you what it is. I don’t know.”

Rutgers’s recruiting money for academically distinguished students with stellar SAT’s has been slashed, but the football budget will increase next year along with Schiano’s salary. “It’s demoralizing to the faculty,” Levitt said.

It’s not as if the bandwagon has square wheels at Rutgers. It’s not as if Rutgers is a campus full of football curmudgeons.

“When Rutgers was horrible at football, students tailgated but never went into the game,” Andersen said. “Now they tailgate, but a larger majority of kids actually go into the game.

“They’re doing well, but it’s like, at what expense?”

The cost is to Rutgers’s intellectual capital. How can the university square its football excess with a fiscal demand for academic austerity? Just what kind of student is wooed by the siren song of a supersize football program? As Andersen said, it appears the university is in search of “kids who want to paint their faces and scream and yell at football games.”

There is another aspect to Rutgers’s football strategy: provide rich boosters with a business perk and an incentive to give. Ply them with victories, with luxury amenities for clients, a winner’s identity for themselves, and watch the money roll in. Last year, Mulcahy said, the Scarlet R Club, the fund-raising arm of the athletic program, collected a record $5.8 million in donations.

The amount doesn’t touch the $20 million-plus raised by organizations like the Gator Boosters from Florida. But even at universities with deep-pocketed donors, the money doesn’t cover the football debts.

This is a sucker’s game. The sport is a money pit and, often, a magnet for corruption. As seen throughout college football, booster influence creates conflicts and opens the way for chicanery. As it traverses this slippery slope, Rutgers seems oblivious to cautionary tales.

So football expands. Let the fencers fall on the sword with the rest of Rutgers.

“Everybody has to decide what’s important,” Mulcahy said. “Just because we have budgetary concerns doesn’t mean we have to stop having a vision for the future.”

Mulcahy is doing his job. But the vision is just as much of an illusion as the attendance by some football players in a certain cupcake class.

“Halfway through, a few at a time, they’d walk out the back,” Andersen said.

At Rutgers, the disappearance of the authentic student athlete is embodied by a course called Dinosaurs — a study in extinction.