The University and the Sporting Life

This is the next post in a series of unknown length regarding the university and its role in the community, focused largely though not exclusively on the University of Pittsburgh. What is Pitt's role in Western Pennsylvania and beyond, as what PA law calls a "state-related" institution. Pitt is public, in a way. What does that mean? Here's the first post.

That first post kicked the tires of a number of issues. Sam raised some good questions in a comment, and here I want to talk about one of them. Responding, I think, to an observation about how Pitt's sports program -- football and men's basketball in particular -- connects with the community at large, Sam wrote: "And by the way, how has the Ivy League managed to function without Big Name sports?" The question is how Ivy League universities reconcile their aspirations to national and international prominence with the absence of Division I athletics.

First, then, a historical note: For the first 50 years of the 20th century, the Ivy League epitomized what then counted as Big Name sports. Harvard and Yale were regularly fielded teams that were among the most powerful in college football -- which is just about the only college sport that counted. They also produced college crews that were world-beaters. And I recall a distinguished Yale baseballer or two. I'm sure that the other Ivies have big-time athletic stars in their 20th century history books, and even a few competing today.

But the reality is that the Ivy Schools have given up the ghost in football and basketball and baseball, as have MIT and the University of Chicago and several other large, prosperous, and prestigious research universities. Why and how?

The answer is relatively simple: Research universities (actually, just about all institutions of higher education) traffic in two key things. One is reputation and prestige. Two is research funding. Harvard, et al. can generate plenty of both without having to subsidize a Division I-A football team. (Harvard and Yale each also offer just about the broadest programs of varsity athletics found anywhere in the country. It turns out that from a financial point of view, running a I-A football program may not maximize athletic opportunities for the students, once you add in administrative costs and the costs of related things, like marching bands. But I digress.)

Can Pitt compete at that level -- that is, compete with Harvard et al. in the reputation and prestige games -- while giving up its Division I athletic interests? I don't think so, and I don't think that it really wants to. Or, to put the thought differently, I think that a school like Pitt fields high profile athletic teams not because of platitudes about providing opportunities for different kinds of students, but because it needs the indirect and intangible reputation benefits of doing so, both inside the academy and beyond its walls. And this is true even though the football coach makes an obscene amount of money, and even though a healthy number of faculty are skeptical about the wisdom of an academic institution putting so much emphasis on competitive sports. While there are a few donors out there for whom fielding a competitive football team is a necessity, my guess is that from a fundraising standpoint sports are a wash; big time athletic programs are incredibly expensive to run. And, of course, research dollars have nothing whatsoever to do with sports. Athletics are worth the candle in part to avoid the embarrassment of this sort of discussion, in which folks discussing the University of Wisconsin are alarmed by what seems to be a faculty exodus, and especially alarmed that faculty might leave Madison, WI for Pittsburgh. Maybe that's a poor reflection on the reputation of the city of Pittsburgh, but I wonder whether academic reputation plays a role.

Meanwhile, the Ivy League and MIT have made their abandonment of big time Division I athletics something of a snobbish selling point. The Ivies sometimes distance themselves in reputational terms just a mite from Stanford, which does compete in Division I across the board, and very successfully. (Successfully everywhere except in I-A football, and in that regard, Pitt fans are nodding their heads knowingly.) In the prestige economy, *not* competing in athletics is what reinforces the top of the existing academic hierarchy; for the big public schools, *competing* is what allows them to stay in the public eye sufficiently to attract a needed quantum of prestige.

"The public eye," then, is a part of the prestige economy for public higher ed in a way that it's not for the Ivies and their cousins. Big time sports count publicly for places like Pitt in terms of their community standing. Pitt needs and wants the respect and admiration of the local population in ways that Harvard does not, at least not symbolically. Pitt wants to be the BMiP (Big Man in Pittsburgh). While Harvard etc. maintain their academic standing without big time athletics, they have mostly forfeited claims of broader symbolic importance to their surrounding communities. Harvard doesn't need to be BMiB (Big Man in Boston); it has bigger fish to fry. Harvard and Yale field football teams, but do Boston or Greater New York care? (Do Cambridge or New Haven care, to any meaningful degree?) Exclusivity has its privileges -- and its costs. Pitt and large state schools with I-A programs have chosen a different course.

The interesting local case then isn't Pitt, but Carnegie Mellon. (The other interesting case, though it's not local, is Notre Dame.) CMU competes in Division III, not Division I. CMU doesn't have the resources to compete in Division I; it may not have the non-sports-related reputational standing in academia to be classed with the Ivies - at least not across the disciplinary board. CMU aspires to a public role in the Western PA community, or at least it seems to in some ways. This question has nothing specifically to do with Pittsburgh, but here goes: Should CMU change its athletics strategy? And if so, how?


1 Response to "The University and the Sporting Life"

Anonymous said... 6/08/2007 10:28 AM

separate college sports into stand alone private non profits owned by the university

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About Pittsblog

Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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