athletics

Photo Credit: Jessica Lin | Daily Texan Staff

March is my favorite time of year: the end of winter, spring break and, of course, March Madness. I am a college basketball junkie. I used to play myself and I love the excitement, the team play, the win-or-go-home attitude and the frequent upsets. (Virginia’s loss on Sunday destroys my bracket!)

This seems an appropriate moment to reflect on student-athletes — the talented college students who are performing for us on the court throughout the NCAA tournament. These young men are extraordinary athletes, playing under enormous pressure. They have trained hard all season, they have won games against great odds, and they have pushed themselves beyond usual physical and mental limits. They represent their universities with pride, and we take great pride in their accomplishments — even when they lose tough games, as happened with the University of Texas basketball team Thursday against Butler.

As I enjoy the games, I also feel a sense of remorse. Most of the players we watch will never make it into the NBA. Most will never earn a dime for their play. What will they do? Are they getting a quality education that prepares them to succeed as non-athletes in our society? What do they get for their performances on the court? What have we encouraged them to expect?

I am a deep believer in the ideal of the well-rounded citizen, and for that reason I view athletics as central to university excellence. The best students should be intellectually sharp, musically adept and athletically skilled. Great universities support greatness in all areas.

My concern is that college athletics no longer fits that ideal. What we are watching on our television screens are players who see themselves as full-time athletes and part-time students, at best. Their studies are really only an afterthought. The quarterback for the national champion Ohio State football team was unique only in his willingness to admit, in a widely circulated tweet, that he viewed classes as a waste of his time. Too many college athletes are encouraged to feel the same way. Classes are required to qualify them to play — which is what they really think they are supposed to do at university.

The fault is not entirely or even primarily with the athletes. All of us, as spectators, are comfortable watching these great players, suspending our concerns about their work in the classroom. We learn their names during the NCAA tournament, but we rarely, if ever, ask about what they study or what they intend to do after their brief moments of March Madness fame pass away. We are content to cheer their athletic performances and then forget them when they no longer entertain us. They really do lose and then go home, and for many college athletes, home is not a pretty place.

I want our sports programs at the University of Texas to improve, and I want to continue watching better college athletes perform at the highest level. They make me proud and I enjoy seeing them do their stuff, especially when they crush Big 12 opponents. My concern is that we address, head-on, the true challenges of educating college athletes. How can we make sure they get a serious education while they are in college? How can we make sure they are prepared for post-athletic careers?

During the 14 years that I have been a professor at two leading college sports campuses, I have seen overwhelming evidence that we are not educating our college athletes as we should. Reports from recent scandals at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University reinforce this observation.

College athletes receive extensive tutoring, but they are consistently encouraged to stay away from difficult majors and challenging classes. College athletes are told they must attend class, but they have practice and game schedules that often make it virtually impossible for them to show up. When they do show up, especially near the end of the semester, their bodies are broken down. I have had football and basketball players come to class who can barely walk and hold their heads up in November and March. Their goal, echoing the advice they receive from their tutors, is to “just get through.”

That should not be enough for great universities. My dream is for the University of Texas to become an even greater athletic powerhouse with true student-athletes who play hard and study hard. I want our athletes to model, for all students, what it means to be a successful person: balancing studies, athletics, relationships and health. This will never happen if we do not acknowledge the imbalances today and act to address them.

The University of Texas is the largest college athletic program in the country. It is time we step up and lead, showing how we can truly educate the best student-athletes of our time, showing their stuff in the classroom as well as on the playing field. We should have a plan for all-around excellence and nothing less. We should start now, and everyone on campus should be a part of it.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.

With our fall sports well under way, I would like to thank all University of Texas supporters — especially the students — for the energy you bring on gameday. Fans are the lifeblood of our teams, and our more than 500 student-athletes thrive off of the spirit and the passion you bring to the stands. Each student-athlete works hard to compete for a championship every year, and the fans’ support continues to motivate them toward the next win. 

Our student body support this year has been especially strong. In reference to the recent report in The Daily Texan, let me clarify that there were different types of the Longhorn All-Sports Package (LASP) for students to purchase in the past. This year, The Big Ticket season ticket plan replaced all forms of the LASP. So far in 2014, Big Ticket sales show a 3.5 percent increase compared to last year’s LASP season ticket sales. The total number of Big Ticket packages sold is now at more than 17,400. 

Because Texas Athletics realizes student support is so critical, we work to give students the best ticket options we can provide. The single ticket option with The Big Ticket allows Texas Athletics to keep the cost down while offering the greatest value possible to the highest number of students. The number of events students have access to with The Big Ticket comes out to an average cost of less than $2 per event, which is right at or less than what other Big 12 schools charge their students. Additionally, all students who purchase The Big Ticket have a reserved seat at each home Texas Football game.

I encourage all students to continue to support our teams throughout the year. If there is a team you have not yet watched on the Forty Acres, now is the time to go! Grab a friend and help show everyone what Texas is all about. 

— Steve Patterson, men’s athletics director, in response to the August 29 article titled “‘The Big Ticket’ sales down compared to LASP”. 

Commissioner Bob Bowlsby didn’t shy away from the truth during his State of the Big 12 Address Monday.

“Change is coming,” Bowlsby said. “If you like what you see in intercollegiate athletics right now, you’re going to be disappointed when the change comes, because it’s coming.”

Bowlsby addressed several issues at Big 12 media days including payment of players, involvement in lawsuits and cheating in college athletics. It was a stark address as Bowlsby was up front about all the challenges facing the Big 12 and collegiate athletics.

One of the biggest issues at hand is the payment of players. Bowlsby made it very clear that athletes are not employees of their respective universities and should not be able to unionize.

“Student-athletes are not employees,” Bowlsby said. “They should never be employees. It’s not an employee/employer relationship. It’s a total square peg in a round hole.”

Bowlsby said that the current lawsuits facing college athletics will cause universities to change the way they handle student scholarships.

“In the end, it’s a somewhat zero-sum game,” Bowlsby said. “There’s only so much money out there…so therefore the cost is higher.”

The rising costs may cause schools to cut back on program. Bowlsby also said that cuts in funds will result in the end of some Olympic sports.

On top of rising costs, Bowlsby addressed those who are cutting corners and finding ways to cheat.

“I think it’s not an understatement to say that cheating pays presently,” Bowlsby said. “If you want to cheat, you can do it and you can get away with it. And there are benefits for doing that.”

Bowlsby said that the NCAA and the five-power conferences must find a way to better prevent cheating. But Bowlsby made sure to say cheating isn’t a rampant issue and most people involved in college athletics are acting with high integrity.

Despite his melancholy address, Bowlsby said that the conference is in great shape heading into the 2014 season.

“We will go through the football season with unprecedented exposure for our football teams,” he said. “And we will have a period of time of lots of good excitement, lots of good competition, lots of fair competition.” 

Steve Patterson, men's head athletic director, said strengthening the Texas Longhorns brand is one of his priorities in a discussion hosted by The Texas Tribune on Thursday.

Patterson compared the business of college sports to his experience working in professional sports, where he worked with teams including the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Texans. Patterson said the relationship between fans of college sports and the teams is much more long-term than in professional sports, and this has the potential to benefit the college team’s brand.

“Given the depth and breadth of the emotional attachment over [multiple] generations and the number of people that come through our doors, the number of eyeballs that watch our games, the number of folks that buy merchandise... I don’t think we’ve sufficiently leveraged college athletics as an industry,” Patterson said.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the UT athletics department made more than $165 million in 2012-2013, which is about $20 million higher than the next university on the list, Ohio State. UT also spent the most on athletics of any other university in the country at $138 million. Patterson said the athletic department contributes between $5 and $10 million yearly to the University.

Patterson said raising the rates people pay for UT athletics, including ticket prices and corporate sponsorship rates, would be practical because these rates are undervalued compared to professional sports.

Michael Choate, an Austin attorney who attended the Tribune event, said Texas sports events, especially football games, are an important factor when people are deciding which college to attend, so he wouldn’t support an increase in football ticket prices.

“What about that kid from outside Austin [who] wants to go to a UT football game that maybe can’t afford a ticket rate hike, and that may be their one chance to kind of get a feel for the University of Texas?” Choate said. “Going to football games and stuff like that is such a great visceral experience. Honestly, when I went to my first UT game when I was a lot younger, it sold me on the university.”

Patterson said promoting the image of UT is difficult because in college sports, there are many rules about what UT officials are allowed to discuss. Because professional sports have fewer rules regarding what officials can discuss publicly, the team’s officials can provide better information to consumers, generating more revenue because the consumers are more informed.

The amount of time student athletes spend on sports is comparable to a full-time job, Patterson said. Patterson said he thinks student athletes are already compensated for their work, and if athletes want to be paid, they should play for professional sports teams.

“We’re already compensating [student athletes] with a full scholarship to come to a great place like the University of Texas,” Patterson said.

Petroleum engineering junior Colin Mosley said he thinks while the full-ride scholarship some student athletes receive is beneficial, they should be paid a little bit because they bring so much revenue to the school, although this is unrealistic. Treating student athletes as employees would create more inequality between small and large schools because large schools have more money, Mosley said.

“All the good athletes would go to the big schools that would pay them,” Mosley said. “It would make the game less fair for smaller schools if students got paid.”

Patterson also said if the University paid some athletes, it wouldn’t have enough money to fund other departments.

“If you really want to go out there and start turning the football players into employees, and paying them, you’re not going to have the resources to support the other programs,” Patterson said. “You pick winners and losers instead of trying to present a broad base of student athletics on the campus.”

 

Shelby Pocnik, government sophomore and pole vaulter, believes that participation in sports has helped fuel her competitive spirit.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

College athletes live in an extremely demanding and structured environment, and a recent study shows this could translate to success even after graduation, especially for women.

According to a recent study by American University, participation in sports is a good predictor of political ambition. The study showed that women who played sports were approximately 25 percent more likely to express interest in running for office than women who did not. For men, the magnitude of the effect is smaller — roughly 15 percent. The study said although the gender gap in political ambition remains considerable even among respondents who played sports, sports could help mitigate the gap considerably.

Government professor Frank Cross said he thinks politics is a natural outlet for the ambition cultivated in collegiate athletics.

“I think [athletes are] naturally competitive, and it translates to politics because politics is competition in a different venue,” Cross said. “People are fighting, trying to win, in a different way.”

Shelby Poncik, government sophomore and pole vaulter for UT’s track and field team, said her competitive spirit has been developed by all the sports she has played over the years.

“We’re constantly hungry for that next height and always heading straight back to the drawing board after we’re done competing,” Poncik said. “I think this mentality has taught me to never be complacent and to always keep aiming for that next level of success.”

Darija Klaic, assistant women’s tennis coach, said a defining characteristic she sees in the women she coaches is perseverance and a desire to keep perfecting their craft. Klaic said there is a plethora of mental skills players have to develop to be successful at the highest levels of tennis.

“If I had to pick one [skill] it would be mental toughness, which is, in itself, a complex set of mental skills put together,” Klaic said.

Klaic said she thinks many of the skills players learn participating in collegiate athletics can be translated to their careers later on.

“Participation in sports offers a unique environment conducive to extensive skill development, as well as personal growth,” Klaic said.

Poncik said her plans after UT are to study and practice law and possibly work in politics later in life.

“I’m really intrigued by the idea of running for some sort of position in government once I have established myself in the legal realm,” Poncik said.

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that scholarship players of the Northwestern University football team are employees of the University and have the ability to form unions, setting a precedent that could have implications across college athletics.

While the ruling, which comes as the NCAA is facing increased scrutiny over the compensation of athletes, will be appealed in front of the board in Washington, it represents a larger trend in the evolution of college athletics and its players.

Peter Ohr outlined his decision in a 24-page report that sided with the College Athletes Players Association, which has been led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. A petition filed in January by the CAPA and heard in front of the board for the past two months provided enough evidence for Ohr that the players are presented as employees of the university.

For years, the NCAA has functioned with players as student-athletes, offering scholarships for their tuition, room, food and books in exchange for athletic competition for their universities. But Ohr found, given the number of hours dedicated to their sport, their payment in the form of scholarships and the amount of revenue they generate for their school, the Northwestern football players should have the ability to form unions since they are “not primarily students.”

“If you think of the life of a college football player, they have very little choice of how they run their life,” said Thomas Hunt, an assistant professor in the College of Education focusing on sports law and history. “So since the power of the students to run their own lives is greatly moderated, I think that’s the primary reason why they decided to seek unionization.”

If the decision is upheld, it could potentially change how the NCAA compensates its athletes as schools bring in millions of dollars each year from their athletic programs. While the ruling only applies to Northwestern football players, it has the ability to extend to other universities across the country.

“I think we’re actually on the cusp of something major,” Hunt said. “I think the general move of things, in terms of other decisions and the financial implications for student-athletes, as well as this, show a pretty strong trend that the landscape of college football is moving.”

Any final decision reached by the NLRB will not affect any public schools, including UT. Instead, players at state schools would have to appeal to state labor boards if they wanted to follow in the path of Northwestern’s players.

It will likely be at least months before a decision will be seen from Northwestern’s appeal in front of the full NLRB. But the decision comes as another major case is taking form. This summer, a case by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon will be heard over athletes’ inability to monetize their image and representation.

“I don’t think many student-athletes need to do anything more,” said public relations lecturer Stephen Wille, who focuses on sports communication. “Right now, the wind is blowing in the direction of positive change for them.”

Glory, wealth and fame: These are some of the rewards that drive athletes in the realm of professional sports and act as heavy influences on the culture and motivations of collegiate athletics.

For a select group of varsity athletes, though, these things are virtually inaccessible. They are walk-on athletes, the unsung heroes of every college campus. Because opportunities for athletic prestige are a rarity for them, these players must primarily focus on earning playing time and, if they’re lucky, a scholarship. While the “no guts, no glory” adage is often tossed around in sports, glory isn’t the primary motivation for walk-on athletes. 

The most iconic portrayal of a walk-on comes from the 1993 film “Rudy,” which tells the story of a boy fulfilling his dream of playing for the Notre Dame football team as a walk-on. While it was certainly overdramatized, the movie captures the essence of what drives walk-on athletes: a sheer love of the game. This stems from the reality that, for the vast majority of these players, their desire to be part of a team is their sole motivation.

In many ways, walk-ons are the consummate student athletes, serving as a bridge between the University’s student body and its athletic programs. Though the vast majority will never play professionally, walk-ons still exert the same time and energy into practice as their teammates. This is remarkable considering the mental and physical strains such a demanding schedule places on them. After all, it’s more taxing to fit studying around practice times when there are not athletic scholarships and on-field accomplishments to fuel you.

Of course, there are success stories of past walk-ons. Scottie Pippen walked on at Central Arkansas before winning six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan. J.J. Watt, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, walked on to the Wisconsin football team after previous college troubles and a stint as a pizza boy. Green Bay Packers teammates Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson, who walked on at the University of Southern California and Kansas State, respectively, are further proof that even today, walk-on athletes can be successful at the professional level.

But, outside of a few exceptions, most walk-ons rarely touch the field. Instead, they dedicate themselves to countless hours of practice to help prepare their team’s highly-touted recruits for game day. Considering the sacrifices they make, these players deserve respect, regardless of how many touchdowns they score, baskets they make or home runs they hit. The grit, passion and perseverance they exert on a daily bases embodies the selflessness and determination that is critical to success both on and off the field.

Monday’s federal government shutdown came with a long list of service disruptions, including closures of all the national parks, monuments and any other facilities or services deemed “non-essential.” While it’s certainly not critical to the functioning of the republic, one unexpected casualty has been college athletics.

Travel budgets have been frozen for athletics at the service academies and Navy has already had to cancel Tuesday’s soccer game against Howard University. Two of this weekend’s scheduled college football games are now in jeopardy: Air Force at Navy and Army at Boston College. 

Navy is in a favorable position here, as it funds its athletic programs through ticket sales, concessions and licensing. Army and Air Force use government funds for athletics, and so are in less control of their own spending. Boston College has offered to pay for Army’s travel to this Saturday’s game, and Navy has done the same for Air Force. 

Of course, neither of these brotherly acts are at all altruistic: The admirals at the Naval Academy and the Jesuit brothers at Boston College all know quite well the value of a home football date in comparison to the cost of a chartered plane. 

The U.S. Department of Defense is expected to announce Thursday whether Army’s players are allowed to get on a bus to Boston, and a Pentagon spokesman speculated Wednesday as to whether concession proceeds from the Naval Academy football program could be used to fund travel for the remainder of their season. 

It is difficult to determine what is more bothersome — that the soccer season at Navy was in jeopardy because of Congress’ obstinacy or that the nation’s military leaders have been scrambling for three days to arrange funding for a football game. Once again, the needs and well-being of student-athletes seem to be a peripheral consideration at best.

The administrations at the academies aren’t at fault here. Like the rangers at Yellowstone National Park or docents at the Smithsonian Institution, they are victims of out-of-touch decision-making and a business climate where public relations tend to wash out truth and common sense. 

This weekend’s games will probably be saved. But for the athletes at the service academies have been left in a week of limbo, not knowing if the practices they’re slogging through all afternoon will be for an inter-squad scrimmage or one of the biggest games on their schedule.

The athletics department announced June 17 that Bubba Thornton, Texas' men's track and field head coach, will not be reprising his position next year, as he and men's athletics director DeLoss Dodds reached a mutual agreement to terminate the last year of his contract. 

"It has been a singular honor to serve as track and field coach for the University of Texas men's indoor and outdoor track teams, as well as oversee the cross country team, for the past 18 years," Thornton said after the announcement was made. "It was a privilege to serve this great university with its extraordinary heritage of developing scholar athletes." 

Thornton arrive at Texas after coaching at Texas Christian University, spending 18 of his 31 seasons of coaching with the Longhorns. While a head coach, Thornton produced 26 NCAA champions, one relay champion and 19 NCAA top-10 finishes, while leading 94 student-athletes to 222 All-America honors. 

This past season, the Longhorns finished No. 6 with two individual championships. Thornton finished his career with 12 conference championships. At Texas, athletes hold 18 of 29 indoor school records and 14 of 29 modern outdoor school records. 

"Not only has he amassed a notable record here at UT, but his capabilities have been recognized internationally when he was named head coach of Team U.S.A's 2008 Olympic Men's Team," Dodds said. 

In addition to his work at Texas, Thornton worked on the Olympic ad World Championship circuits. He served as an assistant coach for Team U.S.A. at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, working with athletes competing in the 400-meter dash, 400-meter hurdle and the 4x400-meter relay. He coached athletes to three gold medals and one silver medal. 

In 2008, Thornton was selected as the head coach for the U.S. track and field team at the Beijing Summer Olympics. The U.S. finished with 14 medals overall, including four gold, at those games, more than any other country. Thornton was awarded the Order of Ikkos medallion for his serve to the United States Olympics Committee for his work as a coach. 

Following Thornton's retirement, which becomes effective Aug. 31, Dodds and women's athletics director Chris Plonsky will be restructuring the track and field program, combine the men's and women's programs under one head coach for the first time at Texas. Merged track programs have been on the rise and Texas is currently the only Big 12 Conference school with a split program. Texas announced Thursday that the new, combined head coaching position would be filled by Mario Sategna. Sategna, who has spent the last 10 seasons as an associate head coach under Thornton, ran track for Louisiana State University and has experience coaching on both the collegiate and Olympic level.

 "Mario's a really hard worker," senior hurdler Keiron Stewart said last week. "He's been here for a while, he's worked in Bubba's shadow for a long time. He knows the ropes, he knows the institution, he knows what it stands for and he will push everyone to do their best, to give the most that they can give to the team." 

Thornton's decision to step down comes on the heels of women's track and field head coach Beverly Kearney's departure this past January, after the revelation of her relationship with a student-athlete in 2002. Kearney resigned upon learning that Texas was prepared to begin the termination process. 

Based on documents obtained from 2004, Kearney filed a complaint with Dodds, stating that Thornton tried to undermine Kearney and accused her of breaking NCAA rules. The two head coaches had a history of friction and Thornton spoke openly about eventually hoping to take control of both programs. 

"With everything that happened here, the good, the bad or the ugly, he always remained Bubba," Steward said. 

According to a statement released by Texas, in retirement Thornton plans to take a a greater role in community interests and spend more time with his wife of 43 years, Kay, daughters Courtney and Piper and his two grandchildren, Sam and Sophie. 

"I think it was time," Stewart said. "Bubba's been here for 18 years. He's done his time, put in a lot of work and now he gets to relax. He gave me great opportunities here." 

Thornton, who is currently on vacation, could not be reached for further comment.

 

Texas is adding another Shipley to its team.

Bob Shipley, who served as a high school head football coach and athletics director around the state of Texas, has been hired as a football analyst at UT, Texas announced Monday morning.

Shipley’s newly-created position is part of the player personnel department and will involve administrative work, showing potential student athletes and their families around campus and planning summer football camp and the high school coaching clinic. Shipley will work closely with fellow new hire Patrick Suddes, director of player personnel.

“Having been a college coach, a longtime high school coach and having been around the program for almost 10 years with my sons, this is a position that just seemed right for me,” Shipley said. “Assisting with recruiting is something that I have experience in and love to do.”

Shipley will start his new role after spending four years as head coach and athletics director at Brownwood High School. Of his four children, two are former or current Texas players. Jordan Shipley holds Texas’ record for receptions and is currently a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bob’s younger son, Jaxon, has started at wide receiver for the Longhorns each of the last two years.

“We’re so excited that Bob Shipley is joining our staff,” head coach Mack Brown said in a statement. “He’s been a highly successful high school coach who has a great deal of respect from his peers. His addition to our staff immediately makes our high school relations and player personnel department stronger. We’re thrilled to have him on board.”