Chris Graham: About those worries on the future of UVA Athletics

UVA AthleticsA UVA student writing for the Cavalier Daily wrote something about sports that got the sports people mad.

Like, angry villagers with pitchforks ready to storm The Rotunda mad.

“Misinformed opinion” this, “presumptuous, arrogant” that.

“I expect a written apology.”

“Canceling all future donations to the CD.”

That last one, classic. Hit ‘em where it hurts, keyboard warrior.

The sound and fury signifying bluster is focused on a piece by student writer Esther Eriksson von Allmen titled “I worry about the future of U.Va. athletics.”

In the piece, Eriksson von Allmen examines the $180 million fundraising drive for a new football operations center, Olympic sports center and related amenities.

The money quote:

“Ultimately, developing and maintaining successful collegiate sports teams takes away from the academic environment of the University in a way that is unfair to the entire student body — athletes included.”

One long paragraph in, and the butts of the bulk of the people who clicked are already chapped beyond recognition, but here’s where I’m the oddball.

You know, in being a sportswriter who is perpetually uneasy about society putting too much emphasis on sports, and a UVA alum who tries not to get too deep in thought about the hundreds of millions of dollars the alma mater throws at athletics when there are so many better things those dollars could be doing.

Put your rocks down.

College athletics exists for two primary reasons: marketing and fundraising.

The marketing comes when, say, the basketball team makes a deep run into an NCAA Tournament, maybe makes it to the Final Four, even goes on to win the championship, and the brand name and logo get scads of play across the various media.

I play a small role in this, right? I’ve been writing about UVA Athletics for 25 years. I’ve written two books on UVA basketball. I devote countless thousands of words and hours of my time and mental energy each week to the latest involving sports teams at the University.

I’m not alone here. There are at least a couple dozen other guys and gals who crank out their own words, or produce TV spots, or radio, plus all the social-media references to the multiple bodies of work.

(Mine is the best. By far. But you knew that already.)

The role college athletics plays in fundraising is that it gets alums to have an excuse to feel warm and fuzzy about ol’ State U.

The alums see the games on TV, maybe come back for the homecoming football game, for a hoops game in the winter, a baseball game on a warm spring weekend afternoon, and they feel so good about things that they cut a check.

In both cases, it’s spending money to make money.

UVA pays millions to Tony Bennett, Bronco Mendenhall and the other head coaches, assistants and support staff, and many millions more for the best facilities in the nation and their upkeep, to earn the marketing mentions, to earn those checks from the alums.

You as a sports fan don’t want to think about any of this, of course.

Many of you are alums, and those who aren’t might as well be, given how much you live and die with it, how much you bleed orange and blue.

It feels dirty to think of the money part of things, and when somebody makes you confront those feelings, ick, come on, make it stop.

You’re just here for the UVA being better than everybody else part.

I get that.

Now, this article, yeah, could’ve been more thoroughly researched.

It came across as a blunt instrument when the points could have been made with nuance.

To wit:

“While the University boasts that its student-athletes had a Graduation Success Rate of 92 percent in the most recent report of data from the NCAA, this statistic holds little significance. Did these graduates learn anything? Have they developed the skills needed to be successful beyond the sports field? These are the questions that ultimately matter.”

Meh.

I mean, is there a way to measure whether non-athlete grads have learned anything, that they’ve developed the skills needed to be successful after sports are over?

I used to get asked to speak regularly to college journalism classes, including classes at UVA, and you’ll find out why I don’t get asked anymore when I tell you what I’d begin those talks with.

Why are you in journalism? Journalism doesn’t pay anything.

Maybe one of you in this room will make a career out of this. The rest of you should be majoring in something else, anything else.

The same could be said for most major paths.

English literature, music, fine arts, theater, any of the social sciences.

My UVA degree is in American government, where my emphasis was in constitutional law.

You notice that I’m not working in government, that I have nothing to do with anything involving constitutional law.

This makes me different from a basketball player not playing basketball professionally after graduation … how?

It was as important, maybe more important, that I had myriad experiences as an undergrad on Grounds to be able to build from as that I had semesters of instruction in constitutional law, foreign policy, comparative government, political theory, sociology, religion and the rest.

I’d submit that a football player who also earns a degree is also better for both parts of the experience than if it was just one or the other.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t sufficient room for concern for student-athletes, though, again, not in the vein that Eriksson von Allmen cast things.

Her article rather clumsily conflated horror stories of student-athletes at other institutions where the academics mission is made subservient to the athletics department, and the folks in admissions and on the faculty are in on how important it is to get kids into school and keep them eligible.

Ask Al Groh, who lost a third of his best recruiting class to the admissions office not playing ball with him in the mid-2000s, on his way to being relieved of his duties, his thoughts on who’s the boss on Grounds.

I had upper-level classes in my years on Grounds with the likes of Chris Slade, Terry Kirby, Bryant Stith, Ted Jeffries, Dawn Staley, none of whom were in over their heads, all of whom have gone on to successful careers after matriculation, some continuing in sports, others elsewhere.

The UVA family can also boast of alums like Chris Long, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Joe Harris, who are all attracting the right sort of headlines for their efforts to bring clean water to communities in Africa that have had to go without that basic resource.

The concerns I have for student-athletes at UVA are the same ones I have for college student-athletes across the board: involving the increased travel to games in less geographically compact conferences conflicting with class and homework time, the pressure on student-athletes from a mental-health perspective, whether they’re being fairly compensated for their thousands of hours of time invested in their development, considering the millions that the school is raking in from TV, ticket sales, donations.

In short, the article could have been written better. Just like Kihei Clark can do a better job when he dribble-drives into the lane, and sometimes gets stuck in the land of the giants with no options; or Bryce Perkins could have sometimes been better letting plays develop.

They’re college kids! They’re learning!

I want to see Kihei in the NBA, Perkins in the NFL, and Eriksson von Allmen at the Washington Post or New York Times.

I also want to see us figure out a way to get people excited about writing big checks to the University to help more kids get access to a UVA education.

I didn’t matriculate at UVA to play sports; I grew up in a trailer park, got a fat admissions letter, and earned a degree that changed my life.

I’m excited as an alum, a fan and a sportswriter about the athletics master plan. I’d be more excited to see a deeper commitment to giving more kids like me from 30 years ago a chance at a UVA degree.

Story by Chris Graham



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