Dear Interim President Loppnow, Incoming President Smith, members of the Board of Regents, Heather Lyke, and anyone else who is interested (not to mention everyone associated with EMU– students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc.– who thinks it is time to do something different with football specifically and athletics generally):
Hi, how’s it going? I’m fine, thanks.
Now that my winter semester is completely wrapped up and I’ve had a chance to catch my breath for a week or so, I thought I’d take a moment and respond to the open letter (open email?) you sent out last week (which I include in the “Read More” section at the bottom of this post), and I also thought I’d share some thoughts on the interview EMU Athletic Director Heather Lyke gave on Michigan Public Radio last Friday, April 29.
First off, let me say that I like football, I really do. I don’t love football or any sports honestly, but I do like to watch football on the weekends when it’s on, I like basketball, it’s fun to go to a Detroit Tigers game, and so forth. Second, I see the benefit of sports for students, even in college, in terms of comradery, discipline, teamwork, school spirit, and all of that stuff. That said, I also think student athletes and their fans would get these benefits if we competed in a lower-level division or even as non-scholarship clubs. Heck, I saw these benefits for the kids when my son was playing on a soccer team in elementary school. But I will agree there is a benefit to “the sports” in general.
Third, while the funding for sports at EMU is more lopsided than at most universities, it’s bad all over. There are only about 25 or so universities in the top division where sports is more or less a profitable or break-even proposition, and, at least according to this USA Today site on NCAA Finances, all of the schools in the MAC are subsidizing more than 50% of the cost of sports with general fund revenues. Heck, of the 231 schools listed in that USA Today page, 151 of them pay at least half the costs of stuff like football with tuition.
So yeah, in response to the HBO Real Sports special featuring EMU’s over-spending and losing ways in football, I feel your pain and I understand the administration’s and the athletic department’s desire for a full-throated defense of the program and the refusal to change. But damn, if you are going to stick to football at EMU, you need to do a better job defending it.
Your open letter, the one sent around by Loppnow et al, is completely unresponsive to the joint report presented by student government, faculty senate, and the union. I mean, I can understand why you all don’t agree with that report, but “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO” is not a counter-argument. And do some math: if we’re spending $27 million a year of tuition money on athletics, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to praise the athletic program’s success at raising $430,000 in fundraising efforts.
Then there’s that interview with Lyke. Jeesh, talk about being in a hole and thinking that the solution is to keep digging. Most of her answers were just random word salad nonsense, as in “The demand [for football] is in the belief that its a value to the university. The pride that it does bring back, and the qualities that intercollegiate athletics teaches young people, I think are irreplaceable.” Seriously, what does that mean?
I get it, there are some simple facts on the ground that are hard for Lyke to dismiss, but her inability to handle this is staggering. It turns out that the guy interviewing Lyke, Lester Graham, has a child attending EMU. At the 4:35 or so mark in that interview, Graham asks flat-out “how does my EMU student benefit” with EMU being in Division 1 athletics.
Lyke responds “What your student gets, you know… when you chose Eastern Michigan, and the time that they chose they knew they had division 1 athletics–”
“–not a factor,” Graham interrupts. “Was not a factor.”
Then Lyke, digging furiously, says something like “Correct, so it’s, um, it’s not a factor in wether or not they um they… you know, I would hope that that student find value in adding diversity to the, you know, landscape and the culture of the university. There are kids that have unbelievable talents in all sorts of things. We have an unbelievable forensics team, we have an unbelievable slam poetry team at Eastern Michigan, we have fabulous art…” and so forth.
Graham pointed out that none of these things have anything to do with support to the athletic department, and Lyke goes back to the earlier statement that we are not thinking about getting out of the MAC or football, full stop.
And then there’s this “diversity” thing, which does appear to be Lyke’s way of saying that college athletics brings a lot of African American students to EMU who otherwise wouldn’t be here. This is a particularly weird claim and it makes me think that maybe Lyke has never actually been on campus at EMU, because if you went to places on the main campus (besides the administrative building, Welch Hall, or maybe a press conference of some sort), you’d see a lot of diversity of students who have zero to do with sports.
Anyway, just to wrap this up, I’d like to make some suggestions to anyone who might be reading this.
First, if the administration, the Board of Regents, and the Lykes of the world really believe that EMU should keep spending this much money on football, then you all need to get some evidence on your side and you need to make a better argument than you’re making here. “We are going to stay in football and in the MAC because we said so” is the logic of a toddler, and people running universities and getting paid as much money as you are all being paid to do this work should know better.
If it turns out that the reason why you are all saying what you are saying is because there are no logical reasons for staying in Division 1 football (and I suspect this is the case), then I think it might be time to take a deep breath and figure out an eloquent way to exit big time sports and save face. I understand Lyke’s point about how EMU has commitments to the MAC through about 2020 so we can’t just pull the plug, but you could start talking now about the “strategic and added value” move to a different conference, to re-emphasizing different sports, and so forth.
And I have to say that if you think about this for a moment, this is potentially a huge opportunity for all of you administrators, board members, and athletic director-types. This is a chance to stand up to the “arms race” in college athletics and to finally say “enough is enough.” This is a change to do something bold, innovative, smart, and brave, and this is also a chance to truly cast EMU in a more positive light.
Finally, to the rest of the EMU community who thinks we spend too much money on sports: we can’t just let this go. If there is going to be any change at all (and that’s still a big if), we need to keep reminding whoever will listen that we’re spending too much money on this stuff. Big-time sports might make sense at the University of Michigan or Michigan State, but they don’t make sense at a place like EMU.
Thanks for reading and have a good summer,