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Tough Times at Stanford

January 20, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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All universities are facing financial problems, even the wealthiest, and not just in their core academic budgets, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see the headline “Facing $5M loss, Stanford Could Cut Some Teams” at the Sports Illustrated website. Nor was I surprised, on reading the AP article on Stanford’s problems, to learn that they’ve had the most successful sports program in the country for years. I knew that. This is the school, after all, that John McEnroe and Tiger Woods attended and competed for, though only briefly. But I was surprised to learn just how successful they’ve been, and I couldn’t help but wonder why they’ve made such success a priority. Here, from the article, is a summary of last year’s success:

Last year, the university captured its 14th consecutive Division I U.S. Sports Academy Directors’ Cup, a recognition presented each year to the best overall programs for each athletic division in the country.

Stanford scored points in 24 of its sports but could only count the maximum 10 each on the men’s and women’s sides — earning 12 top-five finishes. The Cardinal won an NCAA title in women’s cross country; placed second in women’s volleyball, women’s basketball, men’s gymnastics and men’s golf; third in baseball, men’s and women’s swimming, women’s gymnastics and women’s water polo; and fifth in women’s indoor track and field and women’s tennis.

Except perhaps in football, Stanford appears to operate on the principle that they should compete with the best in every sport, and they come close to doing so. (Not that they set lower standards in football. They just don’t come near, in recent years anyway, to meeting those standards.) In terms of budget, one big difference between Stanford and its academic colleagues in the Ivy League is that Ivy League schools do not provide athletic scholarships. The Ivies do have admissions procedures that give preference to a certain number of athletes per sport, but they do not give financial support to anyone except based on need. They remain highly competitive in a variety of sports (not football). They don’t approach Stanford’s level of success however.

Here’s another measure of Stanford’s success. The top three teams in total NCAA Division I titles, across all sports, are UCLA (with 100), Stanford (94), and USC (84). If one restricts to men’s sports, Stanford is third behind USC and UCLA, whereas if one restrict’s to women’s sports, Stanford is first, ahead of UCLA. This begins to suggest that part of success is location, location, location. California is good; Ivy League states aren’t. Maybe. Then again, Oklahoma State (48) is fourth in total titles and presumably isn’t widely appealing to aspiring athletes as a location. (Of course, if you ignore wrestling, about 2/3 of those titles disappear.)

I’m not really getting to the heart of the matter here, which is my expression of despair with regard to the over-sized role of athletics at even our greatest universities. I don’t even know where to begin. So maybe I’ll leave it at that.

The AP article quotes a Stanford employee anonymously on the potential cuts, pointing out that the anonymity is due to the person’s not being authorized to discuss the shortfall. The person notes that elimination of teams is “the last thing they want to consider. They don’t want it to affect student-athletes.” Why members of sports teams should be protected from cuts more than students in other activities isn’t explained. And don’t get me started on the idiotic phrase “student-athlete,” which as far as I know was invented by the NCAA. It should be banned.

Categories: Society, Sports
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