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Originally published Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

A little perspective on intercollegiate sports

Americans' passion for sports is far from unique. Many nations share our love of athletic competition. What is unique about America is the extent to which we have linked sports to our universities.

Special to The Times

Americans' passion for sports is far from unique. Many nations share our love of athletic competition. What is unique about America is the extent to which we have linked sports to our universities. Only in America are intercollegiate athletics a national obsession.

In earlier times, college athletics were predominantly a way for students to continue in sports they played in high school. Athletics also became a vehicle to nurture school spirit, develop a sense of community and keep alumni connected to their alma maters.

With the advent of TV, radio and the Internet, intercollegiate athletics changed. College sports came to occupy a new niche in our sports-entertainment culture. Becoming a professional athlete was suddenly a highly lucrative career for a very select few. While the odds of a young man or woman making it to the professional ranks were (and remain) extremely small, the allure became one of the iconic American dreams, for better and for worse. Also, the money flowing into college sports got serious. The stakes rose, exponentially.

College sports today are a dominant force in the media. This exaggerates the real role sports play at our universities. At the University of Washington, for example, about 700 of our 40,000 students (or less than 2 percent) participate in intercollegiate sports. We spend about $60 million a year on 23 sports for men and women. This $60 million, while certainly a great deal of money, is only about 2 percent of the university's overall annual budget of $3 billion. All $60 million is self-generated by the athletic department. No state general-fund dollars or student fees go to support the UW's athletic program.

Impressive revenue, to be sure, but compare that $60 million with the more than $1 billion our faculty won in research grants and contracts last year, for perspective. It is quite remarkable that an activity that is such a modest part of the university garners such a large part of the public's attention.

So, why all the fuss? Why do people react so emotionally to what happens in our football stadium or our basketball arena? Why don't we cheer similarly for our student who wins a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship? Why don't we feel equally forlorn when a year goes by and the UW doesn't win a Nobel Prize?

The answer lies in the very nature of athletic and academic competition. Sports involve communal activities, events that can be shared collectively. Athletic contests are immediate and urgent — you win or lose, and fans suffer all the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat together. After each game, we all have a shared experience to discuss and relive.

Academic competition, on the other hand, is usually incremental and accretive. Great learning and great discov-eries emerge from actions that few can watch and share in. The process doesn't have a scoreboard or a timer, and there is no frenzied crowd watching every move. It is infinitely more important than scoring a touchdown, but much less immediate. The communal academic moments come at commencement or in the recognition of a Nobel Prize, and there is plenty of cheering then. But, the actions that brought these moments about are not for the arena, but the laboratory and the library.

Academic and athletic competitions also have much in common. They both take place in extremely competitive environments, and achievement in both requires supporting our people so that they can excel. Great universities draw together the best, most talented students and professors with the promise of providing an environment where they can perform at the highest levels, intellectually, artistically, athletically. Physics or football, the goal is the same.

Since college sports attract a disproportionate share of publicity and stir such strong emotions, it is critical that we leaders of universities make sure that our athletic programs are a reflection of the values of the university. Integrity, commitment, collegiality, merit, competitiveness: These must be the core values of the academy and the arena. When fans watch our teams play or listen to our coaches talk, these values should be clear for all to see. We must expect to compete successfully, and we must insist on doing so within the framework of our values.

The sense of fulfillment in reaching a goal to which you dedicate yourself is thrilling. To do so with teammates and colleagues working hard toward a common goal is even more thrilling. We aspire to have all our students develop the values and skills essential to reaching their goals.

College sports, when properly integrated into the university, can provide our student-athletes with just these skills and values. Sports can serve as a resilient glue that holds a far-flung community together. They can give us all great enjoyment. But, if unattended to, college sports can also carom out of control, causing significant damage to a university's reputation or, worse, putting student-athletes at risk to injury or injustice.

Intercollegiate sports are a valued and valuable part of our traditions. But we must keep them in perspective, something often challenging to do.

Mark A. Emmert is president of the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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