Football vs. academia is a contrived contest

By Jayson Jacoby September 13, 2013 09:12 am

Given that Oregon’s economy isn’t exactly blistering in its pace, you’d think a $68 million construction project in Eugene — all private money — would be a cause for celebration.

Unless you’re James Earl, emeritus professor from the University of Oregon.

To say that Earl dislikes the new football office at the U of O is akin to saying Rush Limbaugh has had a couple of minor disagreements with President Obama.

To Earl, the massive structure that Nike founder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, paid for is, among other distasteful things, “hugely depressing” and “absurd.”

You could almost believe the Knights built a gargantuan pit in which to burn books.

I suspect that Earl didn’t ask any of the hundreds of workers who drew a decent paycheck helping to assemble the complex what they think about the Knights’ spending habits.

I have a particular interest in the football building, and in Earl’s opinion of it. Like Knight, I’m an Oregon graduate whose affinity for my alma mater’s football team is, well, excessive. 

(These likely being the only two things we have in common. Although I own one pair of Nikes. And he, well, sort of owns Nike.)

Earl, of course, is hardly unique in seeking to portray college athletics, and football in particular, as a gluttonous beast satiating itself on the blood and marrow of hallowed academia.

This conceit is both common and, in a sense, appealing.

Quite a lot of people, I’m sure, could more easily tick off universities’ mascots than their roster of degree programs, or how many Rhodes Scholars they’ve produced.

Yet the attraction of this campaign to demean college sports as anathema to academics reminds me of nothing so much as cotton candy — sweetly satisfying, but only for a few seconds, and ultimately lacking in nutrition.

The crucial flaw in Earl’s case, it seems to me, is that it rests on a logical foundation with all the structural integrity of a potato chip.

And I don’t mean one of those potato chips designed to plunge into a dish of guacamole and come out intact.

Convicting athletics on Earl’s indictment, as it were, requires evidence that the Knights, by spending their millions on a football palace, are indisputably responsible for yanking dollars from U of O classrooms.

There is no such evidence.

Indeed even the implication is insulting.

The simple and obvious truth is that Earl doesn’t approve of how the Knights spend their money.

He says as much in an interview with the Eugene Register-Guard.

Earl told the newspaper that “building the opulent football operations center makes sense if you’re trying to build a great team.” Otherwise, he said, “it’s hard to imagine a logic that will result in building on such a titanic scale with such a waste of money.”

What’s hard for me to imagine is the level of arrogance a person needs to publicly call someone on the carpet for spending their own money as they see fit.

Especially when no books are being burned.

Or classrooms.

I don’t recall that Earl tossed out similar invectives when Knight donated $27 million to renovate the U of O library in 1994.

Or when he donated $25 million for the university’s law school.

(Both of which gifts, by the way, predated his many, and indeed larger, donations to athletics.)

Or when Knight endowed 27 professorships at the university.

Regardless, Earl actually got it right in the first part of his tirade, that the football complex “makes sense if you’re trying to build a great team.”

Would the professor prefer a mediocre team?

Perhaps Knight should have cut corners with his library donation, lest the expanded structure turn out to be “great.”

After reading the figurative hand-wringing of critics such as Earl you might well conclude that the U of O, as an academic institution, is crumbling while Knight’s architects are showing off across the Willamette River next to Autzen Stadium.

Except the university has added 5,000 students in the past several years.

This does not fit with a failing institution.

The essence of Earl’s disdain is contained in another quote from the Register-Guard, again regarding the football complex.

“(Faculty are) horrified because it’s such a gross and obvious violation of the ideals which brought universities into existence in the first place. They’re essentially about knowledge, wisdom and education and truth. Football has nothing to do with any of that. Zero. It’s entertainment.”

More empty rhetorical calories.

I don’t need Earl to explain to me that universities are considerably older than the forward pass and artificial turf.

Yet again he offers nothing even resembling proof that the U of O’s football team, or Knight’s largesse on its behalf, in any way harms the university’s ability to promote, to borrow Earl’s nouns, knowledge, wisdom, education and truth.

He proffers no evidence that a single classroom has not been built, that a single mind has been denied the life-changing experience of a college education, solely because the U of O football team takes the field 13 or 14 times a year and Knight thinks players should have fancy lockers, and coaches lavish offices.

In one sense Earl’s words, though he meant them in a wholly different way, actually ring true.

“Football has nothing to do with any of that,” he said.

Indeed football, and Phil Knight’s contributions to the sport, has nothing to do with harming the academic environment at the U of O.

Earl’s apparent abhorrence of college athletics seems to be ingrained. And it doesn’t bother me a whit that he feels that way. 

Millions agree.

I’m offended, though, that he, as an apparent arbiter of truth and education, seems disinclined to acknowledge that the pursuit of excellence in academics and athletics need not be mutually exclusive, even within the same institution.

Football is a game, but it’s not of the zero-sum variety.

Phil Knight is of course immensely fortunate to be able to make this point in exaggerated ways — by building libraries as well as football offices.

But I believe his extravagances are more valuable to the University of Oregon than Earl’s empty words.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.