Front porch in focus

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Athletics is a university’s front porch.

This timeless adage is the mantra spread by the NCAA, co-opted by university presidents, athletic directors and coaches alike.

According to a report by the NCAA, only 22 of the 120 universities that participate in the Football Bowl Subdivision generated a surplus in their athletic departments last year, with the average surplus being about $7.4 million. Meanwhile, the other 98 teams fielded an average deficit of $11.6 million.

The gap between college athletics’ haves and have-nots shows that it is more than the siren song of potential financial success that seduces decision-makers to rubber stamp their approvals for costly facility expansions and coaching raises time and time again. No matter the price tag, the front porch needs to be maintained.

This issue is further accentuated at public universities, whose themes of accessibility and affordability preclude its ability to capitalize on niche markets. Public institutions depend on large bodies of applicants not only for tuition money but also to be able to turn them away, which helps its rankings. College athletics are thought to be an easy way to be visible, keep alumni and the community connected with the university and serve as an appeasing source of entertainment for the large student bodies.

But the challenge for universities is that having no team on the field is almost better than having a bad team on the field. And with the high stakes involved in winning, bending the convoluted rules of college athletics is tempting, despite the consequences of getting caught.

This phenomenon is what has turned many talented, modern-day university presidents into janitors-in-chief of the front porch, dedicating large chunks of time dealing with athletic scandals and fallouts.

Several of UT’s peer institutions are among the most recent violators. Last year, the NCAA accused the University of Michigan’s football team for violating rules regarding practice time. In this year alone, Ohio State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of California-Berkeley are all dealing with football and basketball scandals.

By far the most troubling of allegations is the story of a stomach-turning sexual abuse scandal by a former defensive coordinator at Penn State that broke over the weekend. Jerry Sandusky, who was with the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff for 30 years, is facing 40 counts of sexual abuse against minors, a scandal that has already cost the careers of the university’s athletic director and senior vice president and has thrust university president Graham Spanier and head coach Joe Paterno — the latter being one of the most revered individuals in all of college sports — into the web of controversy.

Even UT has not come completely unscathed from athletics turmoil, recently settling a sexual harassment suit filed by a former athletic department employee, Rachel Arena, against Cleve Bryant, long-time former associate athletic director for football operations — or, as he was referred by some in the athletic department, “Old-Freak-Nasty.”

And these are just the scandals; college athletics brings other baggage as well. Texas A&M spokesman Jason Cook told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that A&M President R. Bowen Loftin probably spent 95 percent of his time on conference realignment issues in a three-week period. How much time do you think UT President William Powers Jr. spent? For that matter, Loftin doesn’t even have a 24-hour network to worry about.

The issue doesn’t simply boil down to character issues at university athletic departments but is a product of the onus of front-porch status that is placed on athletics as well as the fickle nature of media exposure.

Most importantly, the unwavering obsession of universities’ top officials in maintaining the front porch does a disservice to the rest of us who have already entered the building because in this game of brand management, it is the students — the ones who should be bearers of the brand — that end up losing.