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Universal U: The Role of Sports
By William Wilcoxen, February 2001
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It's likely that no aspect of the University of Minnesota receives more publicity than its athletic teams. Supporters say intercollegiate athletics are an important part of the U of M because they build character, provide excitement, and raise the university's profile. A smaller number of critics complain that big-time college sports have become a financial risk and an academic drag.

Lindsey Berg, a junior setter on the volleyball team, has to juggle the workload of a student, with the practice and game demands of an athlete.
When John Wefald left the leadership post of the Minnesota State College and Universities System to become president of Kansas State University, he almost immediately okayed a new set of sports facilities and the hiring of a new batch of coaches. Now Kansas State has been to seven straight football bowl games and Wefald says - like it or not - nothing a university does matches the attention and enthusiasm generated by sports.

"We have students who are top orators and debaters and speakers and where is that? It's on page eight. But your football team wins a game and it's a headline like VJ day," Wefald says.

The feel-good factor may translate into tangible benefits, as well. Winning teams sell more tickets and some administrators say donations go up, too, although others dispute that point. Minnesota Men's Athletic Director Tom Moe says winning teams also generate a buzz that makes a school more enticing to prospective students and faculty.

See how the men's athletic department derives its income.

At the University of Minnesota, intercollegiate athletics includes a men's department with 11 teams and a women's department with 12 teams. Their combined budget totals $40 million this year (See chart). Eighty percent comes from money raised by athletics, most of it from three men's teams: football, basketball, and hockey (See chart). About 10 percent of the budget repays debt incurred to build or enhance sports facilities on campus.

Two of the university's finest facilities were built during the 1990s: A new swimming pool and a new hockey arena, which regularly fills with 9,700 fans when the Gophers take the ice.

See how the spending on the men's and women's athletic sports compares.

This year, more than 700 students will take part in intercollegiate athletics, filling their schedules with practices, traveling, conditioning, and competition, in addition to the classes, homework and other activities that occupy college students. Finding time for everything can be a challenge.

Lindsey Berg, a junior setter on the volleyball team, says during the season players must allow time for their daily practices.

"We're at class until 2:15, practice until 7, eat and you've got to go home and do your homework. As much as you want to go home and sleep, you have to do your homework. So, you have to be very organized or you're not going to get it done. You'll get backed up and cause even more stress for yourself. So time management is huge in this," Berg says.

1882: First University of Minnesota football game: Minnesota beats Hamline 4-0.

1898: Cheerleading is born when University of Minnesota student Johnny Campbell organizes cheers at a Northwestern football game.

1953: Paul Giel named college football All-American.

1975: Women's Intercollegiate Athletics Department is formed.

1999: Academic fraud scandal rocks men's basketball team.

Paul Giel, a former U of M athletic director, says skill at juggling a schedule was less critical 50 years ago, when he was starring in football and baseball for the Gophers.

"I can't remember having many team meetings when I played. I don't remember having quarterback meetings where the coach went over the playbook with me. I called my own plays. I'm not saying it was better then, but today the pressure on these young men - in all the sports - it's so time consuming you wonder sometimes how they ever do get an education," says Giel.

Critics of today's college sports system suspect some athletes - in the money-making sports, especially - are not getting much of an education. The academic fraud scandal that shook the U of M men's basketball program two years ago contributed to that perception.

Investigators found that over a five-year period, 20 basketball players turned in classwork that was done for them by a university staff member.

Cheating of that magnitude may be extreme, but Richard Purple, a professor emeritus at the U of M medical school and a member of a national group of scholars concerned about athletics compromising academics, says he believes a growing number of universities routinely lower their academic standards to attract and retain top athletes.

"Kids can't get a seat in class because so many of those seats are reserved for athletes whose grade point averages and everything else are lower than theirs. The academics suffer," Purple contends.

Around the country, most college sports scandals involve football or men's basketball teams. Those are also the teams that bring in revenue for their schools and groom fresh talent for professional sports leagues.

Myles Brand, the president of Indiana University, made headlines in the fall of 2000 by firing Bob Knight, IU's controversial men's basketball coach. Brand discussed his view of the role of college athletics during an appearance at the National Press Club.

Paul Giel says the system puts tremendous pressure on coaches to win both because alumni and the public want them to and because winning teams can raise more money. Giel says college coaches become determined to attract the best athletes.

"You can graduate all of your kids and no problems off the field. But after three or four years, that coach - especially in football - better win more than he loses and go to some major bowls or he's gone," Giel says.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Big Ten Conference, and individual schools like the U of M have all looked at ways to reform college sports. Richard Purple favors abolishing athletic scholarships.

"Some college president ought to have the guts to stand up and say, 'No, I'm not going to play this game,'" says Purple.

Former U of M President Ken Keller, now a professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, says any such bold move at a major university would be short-lived.

"I think what would happen is a president who decided to do that would do it, and the next president, who'd follow in a week or so, would change it back," he says.

Keller says big state-funded universities don't have much choice about taking part in intercollegiate athletics. He says the public expects it, even demands it.

Keller says for Minnesota, reform would have to be undertaken collectively with its peers in the Big Ten. He suggests returning to the days when freshmen were not eligible to take part in intercollegiate sports. Besides giving new students a chance to adjust to college academics, Keller says freshmen ineligibility would cause athletes who really have no interest in school to look at other options.

Fred Morrison, who chairs the Faculty Consultative Committee of the University Senate, says it would help colleges if more career paths existed for the would-be professional athlete.

"Why do we not have problems in baseball? Because there are minor leagues out there and the high school student who thinks he's a future baseball star, but really doesn't want to go to college, can go play for a minor league team," says Morrison.

But the debates over how to reform college sports can obscure the fact that for a great many young people intercollegiate athletics is working very well.

U of M Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz says publicity about scandals contributes to the stereotype that athletes are not legitimate students. Voelz says that's a disservice to the athletes who put so much into both their studies and their sport.

"Look at our female student athletes; nine solid years of our department GPA being over 3.0. And that while they are handling Division 1A athletics, travelling and practicing. They're going to be pretty complete women when they graduate from here and pretty smart women," says Voelz.

Volleyball player Lindsey Berg says she's impressed with how many businesses looking for student interns come to the athletic department, perhaps because they understand the skills those students have developed at managing a tight schedule. Berg says she's interested in reports a pro volleyball league may start in the USA next year. But she's grateful for intercollegiate athletics mostly for the fun.

"You can't beat it," Berg says. "Playing in an exciting game or just being part of a group of people you're this close with and feel this feeling for. It's like another family. So, I don't know what you could do to replace that."

William Wilcoxen covers sports and the city of St. Paul for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at