Many foreign delegations visit our university each year and almost always, the topic of college sports, particularly, American football, comes up. They walk in to my office, notice signed footballs and basketballs, helmets and trophies and bring up the topic before leaving the office. Our friends are intrigued, amazed and confused about our obsession with college sports. Many have studied in America and have experienced the craze first-hand, but they want to know my views as an administrator. They ask:
Don’t you find it difficult to manage sports?
Do your faculty support it?
It has to be distracting. Isn’t it?
They know that I studied in India and therefore would understand where they are coming from. I always smile and tell them the truth. Yes, it does take a lot of my time. And yes, it can have a life of its own. And yes, it can feel distracting sometimes. But, no, I will not have it any other way.
Then I go on and explain to them two fundamental points. One, student athletes do get an opportunity to get a great education, but more importantly, they get an opportunity to learn life skills, like leadership and teamwork. I have personally seen the transformation in young athletes. When done right, the experience of being a student athlete can be one of the most transformative experiences in life.
Secondly, I tell them that college sports engage students, alumni, and communities like very few things can. When we search for coach or athletic director, everyone knows about it and has an opinion about who should be hired. During the football season, I cannot go anywhere in town without people stopping me and giving me an expert analysis of our performance.
If teams are doing well, I get all the undeserved credit as if I am the one coaching them. And if the season is rough, I get bombarded with email and social media advice. Over the years, I have received some interesting suggestions, of which my favorite ones are:
“Fire the coach, fire the AD, and while you are at it, fire yourself.”
“If you don’t fire the coach, I will never give another dime again.” (We are still searching our database for the first dime he claims to have given.)
“If you don’t fire the coach, you will be personally responsible for my death.”
These are not the usual feelings, but I will take negative feelings over no feelings at all. As long as alumni are engaged, they care, and as long as they care, there is a chance that they will find positive engagement with some part of the university.
I know that the world of college sports is getting financially and administratively challenging. Many institutions are questioning the value of having a major sports program at all. Some of them may decide not to have one in future.
For the University of Houston, we find a historical need and a valuable impact of college sports on educational experience. Our alumni are still inspired by the magic of Phi Slama Jama, the glitter of Olympic gold decorating Carl Lewis, and the weight of Heisman Trophy in the hands of Andre Ware. They are part of our tradition but they are also part of our identity and pride.
We cherish our student athletes and will keep on working hard to make it a positive learning environment for them. We also treasure our alumni and will continue to find ways to make them proud of their university.
Oooops…I lost track of time. It is time for me to take our delegation members to the baseball game. Go Coogs!