By Frank Wessling
Before we get to Holy Week next week we must listen to the winds of March Madness whirling across the country.
The major college men’s basketball championship tournament began its run last week and will command daily attention until its noisy climax in Indianapolis, Ind., on April 5 between student-athletes from Duke University and those from Northern Iowa. (Important note: sports predictions are not covered by the normal rules of infallibility governing this department.)
A kind of March Madness began in Iowa earlier this month when the University of Iowa men’s basketball coach, Todd Lickliter, was fired for failure to win enough games. This is not uncommon for coaches. Bankers and corporate executives may fail just as spectacularly as any coach but they’ve been known to receive bonuses and pay raises rather than a pink slip. Not that coaches at major schools like Iowa face poverty when they are sacked. As he walks away, Lickliter reportedly will be paid more than $2 million owed him from his contract.
But what really counts as a kind of madness is the talk, the buzz, the jabber, the millions of words that erupt in sportsland when big things happen. Everyone who cares about Iowa basketball, for example, feels compelled to express their passion, frequently without the filter of thought.
So much of this goes on that it’s unfair to single out one item, but this one from the Iowa City Press-Citizen last week begs for notice. According to the newspaper, Jay Bilas, who talks over basketball games on the TV network ESPN, thinks Lickliter’s poor record is a matter so important that if he were the University of Iowa regents he would call the school president “on my carpet.”
Apparently, what we’re supposed to have here is major dereliction of duty at the state’s flagship institution of higher education. Bilas is quoted as saying that part of a university president’s job, with the athletic director’s help, is to “hire a coach that’s going to win games.” Wouldn’t we prefer that the president focus on hiring an excellent faculty in history, languages, philosophy, science and the School of Religion?
It’s a nice feeling when sports teams win. And outstanding coaches like wrestling’s Dan Gable are both models and teachers of excellence. But the culture of sports and the big business associated with sports has tended to assume priority over — or at least parity with — academics in many places. Bilas only reflects a common attitude. Does this have anything to do with the relative decline in American educational standards as compared with the rest of the world? It’s reasonable to assume a connection.
Consider a radical change — radical for this country but not for most of the world. When games become a big spectator business, let them function as such separate from colleges and universities. That would be more honest for all sides. Let Iowa City and local businesses sponsor a basketball team that could serve as an entertainment for university students and anyone else who wants to pay for tickets. Some of the players on the club might want an education, too — becoming athlete-students, as it were.
If she doesn’t have to worry about the behavior or winning percentages of “student-athletes” and their coaches, the university president would also be relieved of a major responsibility. She could spend more time recruiting the best teachers in, say medicine and economics.
You can buy a lot of teaching for $2 million.