The costs of sport

John Costa / The Bulletin /

Three stories broke this week that make me wonder what sports, particularly at the collegiate and professional level, are doing to our society.

As a fellow sports-loving friend of mine said, sports are powerful messengers — for good and for bad, because they are so dominating today.

Not many missed the news that major league baseball is suspending multiple stars, led by Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, from the game for, as the investigators maintain, using performance-enhancing drugs.

What is so remarkable is that this story is, in the language of my business, an evergreen — a story so consistently true and so often repeated that it has a perpetual life.

Years ago, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell conducted an investigation of performance drugs in baseball and came close to saying they were endemic.

“Everybody in baseball — commissioners, club officials, the players association, players, — shares responsibility,” Mitchell said.

Why?

Because it was in everyone's monetary interest to ignore reality.

Years later, it is impossible to believe, given the extent of the recent allegations, that anything has meaningfully changed.

Fay Vincent, former commissioner of Major League baseball, offered a chilling warning this week in The Wall Street Journal.

“Sadly, college and even high-school sports are infected by drugs that kids take to be competitive. “

Another story this week in The New York Times described the ludicrously opulent, $68 million football operations center at the University of Oregon, paid for by Phil Knight and his wife.

Nothing against the Knights, who have also been extremely generous to the academic side of the university.

But what does it say about the state of collegiate sports that to be competitive, a football program requires a $68 million Taj Mahal so that the players can, in the words of The New York Times, enjoy “a barbershop with utensils from Milan. And a duck pond. And a locker room that can be accessed by biometric thumbprints. And chairs upholstered with the same material found in a Ferrari's interior. And walls covered in football leather.”

What does it say that at the same time, The Register Guard of Eugene reported that the university is facing hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred building maintenance.

The very questionable rationale for this is that big league athletics — particularly football and men's basketball — make money.

But according to multiple reports, very few collegiate athletic programs, including Oregon's, operate without additional university subsidies.

According to USA Today, which based its report on data that universities provide the NCAA, “just 23 of 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division I public schools generated enough money on their own to cover their expenses in 2012. Of that group, 16 also received some type of subsidy — and 10 of those 16 athletics departments received more subsidy money in 2012 than they did in 2011.”

The most poignant story this week was an obituary of Dick Kazmaier, a Princeton All-American football player and, in 1951, the last Ivy League Heisman Trophy winner.

He rejected the NFL, saying he had achieved all he wanted and then went on to a great business career.

Time Magazine praised him, declaring Kazmaier was a “refreshing reminder, in the somewhat fetid atmosphere that has gathered around the pseudo amateurs of U.S. sports, that winning football is not the monopoly of huge hired hands taking snap courses at football foundries.”

The world of sports has certainly changed since Kazmaier's days.