JENKINS: We should fix college athletics before a 'market correction'

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

Before I commence hacking off all the college sports fans out there, let me just say this: I’m one of you.

Not only am I a lifelong fan, I’ve also been a college athlete, coach and athletic director — albeit not at the NCAA Division I level. Still, I have some idea how things work in a collegiate athletics program.

That’s why I’m concerned about the future. Financially, what’s going on now in the world of big-time college athletics just doesn’t seem sustainable — kind of like the housing market four years ago.

With higher education budgets being razed to the ground, even as coaches’ salaries climb into the stratosphere, it appears that we’re headed toward some sort of tipping point where the whole enterprise begins plummeting back to earth.

Perhaps those of us who love the games should bring them back to reality ourselves, before they crash and burn.

The process may be painful — but perhaps not as painful as you think. We can take steps now that will allow the games to continue without bringing our beloved institutions to the brink of bankruptcy.

Because it’s the institutions that we love, after all. That’s important to remember.

A brief story might illustrate my point. I began my coaching career at a small college in western Kentucky. One year we scheduled a preseason scrimmage against a barnstorming team composed mostly of former University of Kentucky stars.

Make no mistake: although 300 miles from Lexington, this was still Big Blue country. We thought the locals would turn out by the thousands, packing our little cracker-box gym, just to get a glimpse of their Wildcat heroes.

But when the big night arrived, I was surprised to see that the gym was only about two-thirds full. We had more people for regular-season games.

Apparently my high school coach was right: It really is the name on the front of the jersey that matters, not the name on the back. Guys who had played in front of 25,000 at Rupp Arena couldn’t draw 2,000 in a backwater town — because those 25,000 hadn’t been there to see them. They came to see the University of Kentucky, and most of them would have showed up to root for anybody who happened to be wearing the royal and white.

I believe the same holds true for UGA football or Georgia Tech basketball. It’s the red and black or the navy and gold that people come to see, not Matt or Derek or Knowshon. As long as everyone’s following the same rules, and the games remain competitive, people will continue to flock to them.

Next week I’d like to talk about those rules and how they might be tweaked in order to preserve the integrity and viability of our programs over the long haul — after which, I might be looking for a new place to live.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English and director of The Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.