May 07, 2004
John Lopez is making sense

Somebody slap me - this is now twice that I've favorably cited John Lopez.

The passionate fight you want to wage in order to keep sports at Rice, especially football, is shared by many. By me.

But it is emotion talking. It is the raw, guttural reaction to someone daring to suggest that Rice athletics be scaled back, played at a diminished level or even vaporized.

We are sports fans. Houston sports fans to boot. To be unemotional about it, specifically a drop from Division I-A football, would be akin to turning down half-price beer at Reliant Stadium. Or free barbecue at Rice Stadium.

Who here would actually want to see Rice athletics remade into something less than top shelf? I wouldn't. You wouldn't. No one would.

But knee-jerk emotions do not pay bills that stack $10 million deep every year and will not change significantly with a move to the more geographically friendly Conference USA.

Raw emotions do not change consumer trends. Demographics will not suddenly reroute a path that was set long ago -- before, even, the breakup of the Southwest Conference, which many Owls supporters consider the beginning of this talk about an end.

The truth, in fact, is that Rice long ago began losing its appeal to its most significant potential audience -- us, the beer-and-barbecue crowd. The interested but uninvolved parties.

He's right. There just aren't enough people in Houston, whether affiliated with Rice or not, who care to pay for the privilege of watching Rice football games. Rice can keep its head above the current Division IA requirement of a 15,000 per game minimum home attendance average, but it has to rely on opponents who travel well and an annual Operation Sellout to do it. And though it's Rice who is navel-gazing about its future in football, it's not just Rice with this problem - the Cougars suffer from a similar infection of indifference.

I don't know what the trustees will eventually do. My personal choice would be to make a real commitment to excellence in athletics, at the same level of standard as they have in academics. That would necessarily mean spending a ton of money, from improvements on Rice Stadium and building a real basketball court to doing some actual marketing. We all know how likely that'll be.

There is one thing that I do know, and that's what will not happen:

[W]hy not form a "Southern Ivy League"? Rice, SMU, Texas Christian, Tulane, Vanderbilt ... no football scholarships ... real students playing football for fun, instead of for money.

This little fantasy comes up all the time on the Owlzone fan forum. I'm just going to say this once, so please pay attention: The "Southern Ivy League" is never going to happen. Put aside the fact that Vanderbilt is a member of a BCS conference, and that TCU has now abandoned two conferences with Rice in them in order to position itself as a national football powerhouse. No other school in this wish list (which sometimes includes Baylor) is considering a change in their status as Division IA football teams. Why should they? What benefit would they get from it? What makes you think that Rice could convince them to abandon their current paths and play non-scholarship football in a league of their own? And finally, why do you say that the 80+% of Rice football players who graduated are not "real students"? What exactly would you call them?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 07, 2004 to Other sports | TrackBack

It's definitely not just Rice. Look at just about *any* major metro area with an abundance of major league professional athletics. It's a rare city among them that doesn't have collegiate and/or minor league attendance woes. There are a few exceptions -- Washington does pretty well even with the Seahawks in town, as do a few other mostly Southern locations (Miami, Atlanta). But for the most part, there's just too much competition for the sports entertainment dollar.

To add insult to injury, though, it's not just major league sports in the case of UH and Rice. It's allegiance to *other* schools, most notably UT and A&M, that really are the dagger to the heart.

And as the BCS stranglehold continues and conference affiliation becomes evermore critical to gaining marketshare and mindshare, it's only going to get worse for Rice and all the other football "have nots" outside the BCS.


Posted by: Tim on May 7, 2004 9:35 AM

Please do NOT get me started on the topic of people who graduated from Rice with a HPER major because they couldn't hack the academic programs.

I know architecture and music are easier to get into than engineering or liberal arts at Rice, but people in architecture and music generally can hack it in the mainstream programs. That is not always true of student-athletes, some of whom have substantially lower qualifications, and frankly, less interest in academics, lower academic aspirations, and a substantial time/energy/effort sink in their athletic programs which mainstream students, even in the architecture and music programs, don't have.

Student-athletes who come to Rice to study are great in my book. Student-athletes who come and can't hack it, even if it's only because the time they need to hack it is taken up with the football programs they are paid scholarships to participate in, are a problem. Those people are there at Rice; denying they exist, and denying they present a problem for the academic community, does a serious disservice to any rational discussion of the role of athletics at Rice.

Posted by: Ginger on May 7, 2004 10:34 AM

Ginger, point taken. My problem with the assertions made by the "Southern Ivy League" person is that he seems to be implying that there are no "real students" currently playing football for Rice. That ain't right.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 7, 2004 11:31 AM

I am not opposed to student athletics, because I think there is some value in the diversity of students they bring to Rice, I like the idea that a Rice education is available to people who might not be able to get one without this option, and I think sporting events provide a communal "quality of life" benefit for the student body.

That said, I would not shed a single tear if the Rice football team did not compete in Division 1A, or even exist. The football program is in conflict with the educational mission of Rice University in significant ways that the other sports programs generally are not.

My only concern about getting out of Div 1A would be that it would reduce Rice's national exposure and mindshare with the public. Perhaps the football program should be funded and run as a marketing campaign, if that's its utility. (But I digress...)

I think the large sums of money moving through the system distract the administration into believing that the program have value beyond how they affect the educational mission of the university. The recent dust-up between the athletic department and the student radio station is an example of this. That the athletic department could grab portions of the student-run radio station in order to more cheaply market their games is an example, to my mind of the tail wagging the dog. [I know this involved a basketball game, but I think the problem still stems from football.]

In general, I don't believe that the athletic department should ever be allowed to compromise the educational excellence of the University. They get voted outside the hedges first.

Posted by: Michael on May 7, 2004 6:32 PM