I am about to commit an act of blasphemy that will rival Salman Rushdie's insult to the Prophet Muhammad and may create an equivalent firestorm. But before you start heating the tar buckets and fetch the rail, please keep in mind that at this point, I am merely postulating, not advocating.
Still, with March Madness upon us, UNCA making it to the second round and the Tar Heels en route to the Sweet 16 at this writing, it’s occurred to me that if Asheville High School, Reynolds or Erwin announced it was discontinuing foreign-language instruction, dramatics or even computer science, there would probably be only a mild protest at the most.
If, on the other hand, it were announced that varsity sports would be discontinued, it would foment a revolution: attacks on school boards, rending of garments, gnashing of teeth and marching in the streets. One big reason is that high-school athletics rank among the cheapest and most entertaining amusements for adults in the community. They’re also a way an athletic child can attend college for free.
Every day, I see hundreds of meticulously collected statistics and records in the sports pages. What I’ve never seen, however, is an accurate tally of the costs to public schools and tax-supported universities. I have to assume that this emotional 800-pound gorilla just needs to be kept in its cage because it costs the taxpayers big money. If these activities generated revenue, the numbers would surely be broadly publicized.
In some cases, the costs must be enormous, especially if you factor in the capital expense of the facilities, the cost of maintaining them, equipment, university scholarships, student-athlete perks, transportation and paying coaches, assistants and referees.
At the college level, some coaches receive seven-figure salaries, and I imagine many high-school coaches are compensated well above their fellow faculty members.
In many cases, varsity sports programs build character and sportsmanship; often, however, they’re all about winning, because parents, fans and administrators demand it — placing athletics above education.
How many times have we heard someone say, "Winning isn't everything — it’s the only thing." And we frequently see examples of unsportsmanlike conduct, often by parents or fans rather than the athletes.
I will say that if all coaches were of the caliber of beloved UNCA Coach Eddie Biedenbach, there might be a better outcome. Although Eddie is a premier basketball coach, he truly emphasizes character development, discipline and education in training his team. If you don't meet his behavioral standards, you don't play for Coach Eddie, no matter how talented you might be. Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of the student body gets the benefit of Coach Eddie’s masterly guidance.
At this point, I must say that I am an avid sports fan. While I am not fond of basketball, I love football and have enjoyed the Asheville Tourists since childhood.
But with the state Legislature poised to take a meat ax to the budget and the educational system (K through college) targeted for perhaps the biggest cuts of all, many educational programs are facing reduction or elimination, and dedicated teachers and assistants may be fired. Against that backdrop, we must determine the true cost of our athletic programs in order to evaluate them fairly alongside all other educational activities.
We have to ask if it’s fair that the small number of gifted young people who excel at throwing, hitting, catching, running, jumping etc. should receive a special subsidy in the form of training and scholarships, while harsh cuts are made to the detriment of most students.
After factoring in the revenues from gate receipts, donations, merchandise sales and television, we can determine if the many advantages of having varsity sports at the high-school or college level — including school spirit, pride, reputation and overall enjoyment — are really cost-effective.
Whoa! Hold the boiling oil. I have a possible solution.
In the long term, the major beneficiaries of high-school and college athletic programs are the NFL, NBA and major league baseball teams and those players who are skilled enough to make it to that level. The rewards are mind-boggling: The team owners make billions, and the players become millionaires.
I was shocked when I read recently that some 21-year-old baseball player from a small town out West was disappointed by the $2 million signing bonus he received right out of college, having expected $5 million.
So here’s my proposal: Require all varsity athletes and athletic scholarship recipients to sign a contract agreeing that if they’re hired by a professional team, they’ll pay a percentage of their salary for so many years into a pool that will be returned to their college and public school under some equitable formula.
If the entire undergraduate athletic system got behind this, they might also force the professional teams to match that money.
Otherwise, the schools should threaten to discontinue their varsity athletic programs, have only intramural sports, and let these billionaires pay for their own damn player development.
This would take a lot of burden off the taxpayers while perhaps making more scholarships available and improving athletic programs overall.
See, once you get to know me, I’m not such a bad guy. All I can say is, "GO TAR HEELS!!!"
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.