Amid this frenzied, take the money and run bonanza that’s sweeping through college sports, a state legislator here suggested this past week that our two big universities, UW and WSU, ought to take a different path, and stick it out together in the same conference instead.
“These questions should be decided based on what is best for the people of Washington, not what’s best for TV conglomerates,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn.
Hoo boy, did he get run over on social media like the Dawgs sprinting out of the Husky Stadium tunnel.
“Another politician that has no idea what he’s talking about,” bit back one commenter. “Let the market dictate this, you socialist,” said another. There were hundreds of negative comments, piling on like a Montlake blitz sack, until my favorite, from the appropriately named “lastdawgstanding,” who said: “Keep government out of football.”
Do people realize that these are government football teams?
I know they may act like pro sports franchises, seemingly open to jilting century-old traditions for any fresh bid from ESPN or Fox. But the reason this is so fraught, at least for us, is that this is decidedly not free-market business — it’s part of a publicly owned higher education system that’s older than the state itself.
That UCLA was allowed last week to cut its own mega deal and join a rival sports conference in the Midwest, the Big Ten, is both jarring and surprising.
Sure it’s all about the money, end of story. But UCLA, like UW, is a public school, which means it has a supposed societal mission for its state that goes far beyond its own campus.
How does UCLA leaving behind its sister school, Cal Berkeley, do anything but trash that school’s athletic prospects? Or serve the broader mission of the University of California system?
“I believe this could mark the beginning of the end of major college football for the Bay Area schools,” writes Jon Wilner, the reporter who broke the story of UCLA and USC leaving behind the Pac-12 conference for riches distant. (USC is a private school, which to my mind makes it a different animal entirely.)
UCLA and USC have “surely lost something in the mercenary process,” summed up a column from a UCLA grad, in the LA Times. “Call it character. Some will cheer, certainly; others might call it winning ugly.”
The reason I’m writing about this here, not in the sports section, is that this isn’t really about sports. It’s about the corporatization of higher education.
It’s why whatever the University of Washington chooses to do isn’t, ultimately, its decision alone. We own the school. “Lastdawgstanding” may speak for all about wanting to win, which apparently can’t happen unless Montlake first becomes a subsidiary of Fox Sports. But that isn’t all that’s at stake.
What’s happening in college football is that they’re becoming pro teams. With the billions now involved for the top 20 or 30 teams, pay for elite players is inevitable. The formerly amateur student-athletes can now make marketing deals for themselves anyway. A UW professor, Jennifer Hoffman, calls the resulting landscape the “Kardashianization of college sports” — where athletes are exerting more leverage over the huge entertainment and advertising systems that fuel their games.
That’s their right, especially with all the money raining down. But does a professional, entertainment-based operation fit inside a public university’s academic and research mission — still the main point of a school?
At a minimum it throws into doubt the scholarship system, as well as core academic principles like maintaining progress toward a degree in order to play.
“College athletes likely will be declared employees, or pseudo-employees, and receive compensation from the schools for their services,” forecasts Wilner, the football writer. “There’s no chance Stanford would ever do that, and we doubt Cal would take the plunge. On both campuses, the faculty would revolt like it’s Paris in 1789.”
We’ll see if they’re really that old school, but if Stanford or Cal won’t do it, should we? The University of Washington has long aspired to be mentioned in the same sentence academically as its public counterpart Cal. So what are we going to do here? This seems like it’s potentially a tipping point not just for sports, but the entire university.
Back to the state legislator’s point: Does the UW have any responsibility, any shared purpose, with its little brother WSU out in Pullman? They’re part of the same state university system. If the Huskies bolt for the Big Ten à la UCLA, WSU will be left marooned on an island of debt (more than it already is). I know, too bad for the Cougs. Except we the public own that 132-year-old enterprise too, remember?
One out-there solution to this public-private tension could be to spin off the Husky football program as a private company. I’m serious: the Notre Dame athletic director has already talked about this as a likely future. The players would no longer be students with scholarships and academic benchmarks, but employees (though they could still apply to attend the school like anybody else if they wished). This new “Husky, Inc.” could license the brand and the stadium from the UW, with the money used for debt and other sports, which could remain amateur (and maybe in a regional West Coast league). There could also be a profit-sharing arrangement back to the university system (aka WSU).
The UW already spins off multiple private companies every year, usually in biomedical fields and tech. So Husky, Inc. would just be another one, albeit with an unusual product.
The other option is to stand pat and, by default, de-emphasize big-time football. The calculus though of this insane new era of college sports is that either you gold rush to the quasi-professional superleagues, thousands of miles distant, or you wither. So you win ugly like UCLA, or you lose. That’s supposedly the choice.
The vote of the fans on social media was clear — they want to win.
But the UW also happens to be the crown jewel of a 160-year-old success story in public education, and by far the most important institution in this city.
It shows the intoxicating power of sports that this even has to be said, but the sports pages are not the only place, or even the first place, where the UW’s big choice should be aired. Dawgs, for all their passion, are not the only ones who get a vote.