Sunday, January 28, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 372 - Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 10:45 a.m., 12:15 p.m.

Athletics and Academics

There's been more national (and state-wide) focus on college football and basketball issues recently. I wrote about them last September. See, Nicholas Johnson, "Athletics and Academics," September 30, 2006.

At the outset, let me say that, in my experience and among my acquaintance with academics over the years, I find them all over the lot when it comes to attitudes about professional and intercollegiate athletics. Somewhere between "many" and "most" I would even call "sports enthusiasts." They buy season tickets, attend most games, have favorite professional teams (football, baseball and basketball), are knowledgeable, talk, and even write, about sports. Many participated in major sports while in high school or college, and some are still active personally. At the other extreme, I have one colleague currently whose attitude I would have to concede involves a measure of disdain for sports (which he pronounces "schportz"); but he's really alone in holding that position.

On the other hand, I know some involved in intercollegiate or professional sports -- and many in the academy -- who recognize that there are problems (as well as benefits) from trying to operate major, big business athletic operations from inside colleges and universities.

As always, it's important to isolate the issues. Aside from my one colleague, there's little support for doing away with sports (and I'm not sure even he would advocate that). There are abuses with which those inside the business are even more anxious to deal than are their critics on the outside. But sports, in general, have been with our species for thousands of years, serve a human passion, and aren't going away even if one would want them to.

The issue, simply, is where they can best be located institutionally within the society. Throughout most of the world sports are organized into "community" (not "college") teams. That in no way diminishes their role in those societies; if anything it enhances it.

That's what I was advocating last September in my proposed reforms for high school and college athletic programs. I suggested we simply spin off the major college sports into the businesses they have become, what with the multi-million-dollar coaches' salaries, even more expensive stadium and arena construction projects, TV revenues, ties to organized gambling (See Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling on the Hawkeyes; Wanna Bet?" "UI Held Hostage Day 66 - Jan. 21," January 21, 2007, and
Nicholas Johnson, "UI Football Promoting Gambling?" September 16, 2007) and product endorsements (See Scott Dochterman, "Sports Marketing; High-profile coaches double as advertisers," The Gazette, January 24, 2007). Some ties to schools would remain, but we could drop the pretense about "student" athletes.

This past Wednesday, Sports Illustrated's Frank DeFord had a commentary along these lines on NPR. (See Frank DeFord, "Money in College Sports? Let's be Honest," Morning Edition, National Public Radio, January 24, 2007.) He's suggesting what would be, in effect, a "College of Entertainment" within a university's cluster of colleges; just recognize that's what we're doing: universities are providing intercollegiate athletic programs because they are a form of entertainment that the public has grown to know and love -- and demand. Full stop. Remove the "academic" pretense.

Much of the current focus on the issue has been prompted by Senator Charles Grassley's running up his flagpole the prospect of removing the "charitable" tax deduction the wealthiest fans get for their "contributions" to college athletic programs that are now often a prerequisite for getting good (or even any) seats. (See
Charles Grassley, "Looking Out for Taxpayers by Looking at Donations," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 27, 2007. See also Scott Dochterman, "Tax-exempt changes could affect donations; But officials at Iowa, ISU have no immediate concerns about issue," The Gazette, January 20, 2007; Tom Witosky, "Grassley: Do College-Athletic Contributions Merit Tax Deductions?" Des Moines Register, January 18, 2007 (with link to Tom Witosky, "How Deduction is Figured on Kinick Lease Payment"); Nicholas Johnson, "Federal Subsidies for UI Football Program," "UI President Search Held Hostage Day 64 - Jan. 19, 2007, January 19, 2007; "Congress' Letter to the NCAA (letter sent to NCAA president Miles Brand from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas on October 2, 2006)," USAToday, October 5, 2006.)

This morning a number of readers chimed in on the issues in the Des Moines Register's letters section, linked below.

Will anything change? Probably not this year. But there does seem to be more focus on the variety of issues surrounding the big business of college football and basketball. And as Tom Paine once said, "Words pile up and afterwards men do things. First the words."

These are among the words.

"Thinking Outside the . . ."

How might we redesign what is now college football into something that would involve many of the same people -- even retain some of the ties to colleges -- in ways that would continue to please the fans and bring in the money? That's "thinking outside the skybox" -- what we were just addressing, above.

"Thinking outside the box," as the expression goes, can apply to lots of boxes.

We need to do some "thinking outside the prison cell," too, as I wrote in a letter to the editor of The Daily Iowan last Thursday:

"The Daily Iowan editorializes "it is necessary to provide adequate and appropriate facilities to handle inmates" in the Johnson County Jail. ("Talk of new jail should be more than just words," Jan. 22.) The editorial is right. Prisoners "are still people and still entitled to decent care." That's not only a no-brainer, it's the law.

"But it's not the issue.

"Some cities' officials look at crowded freeways and say, "We need more lanes." They're right that traffic jams are an economic and personal burden. But wider roads are soon equally congested.

"Other cities' officials look at crowded freeways and say, "Let's substitute better public transportation and bike paths." That's sometimes a more effective strategy.

"Similarly, some see crowded jails and want to build more and bigger ones. Others ask, "Why are these people in jail?"

"Prisons have become our public-housing program, holding one of the largest prison populations in the world.

"Who are they? A goodly number are mentally ill, deprived of the mental hospital care formerly provided. Others are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Many are nonviolent offenders found with small amounts of marijuana. Some are just awaiting trial. Community service or tracking ankle bracelets could be alternatives for still more.

"Have we applied basic systems analysis and "thinking outside the cell" to "crowded jails"? Maybe we have. If not, $25 million jails may be the equivalent of eight-lane freeways when bike paths would do."

Nicholas Johnson, "New Jail Isn't Answer," The Daily Iowan, January 25, 2007 (with link to original DI editorial, "Talk of New Jail Should be More Than Just Words").

In this morning's Register Rev. Carlos Jayne, of the Justice Reform Consortium (in other words, someone who actually knows what they're talking about on this issue!), takes a comparable stance, noting that we're currently "incarcerating too many people for too long; requiring mandatory sentencing for too many crimes; allowing sentencing in the court systems to be controlled by county attorneys rather than judges; using our prisons for places to store the mentally ill; refusing to provide substance-abuse treatment in lieu of prison; not providing adequate funding for the education, treatment and counseling required by the parole board of an inmate to be considered for parole."

Thinking outside the school house

Do we need a transition sentence if I'm going to move from a discussion of prisons to conventional high schools? Fortunately, in Eastern Iowa we do. Not so in many parts of the country. We have good schools here. Like any community with civic pride, they may not be fully as good as we think they are, there may be some things we could improve slightly, but by any standard they are schools that give us a lot of which to be rightfully proud.

But The Gazette editorialized this morning that maybe we still need to do some thinking outside the classoom before we go raising millions of dollars with a local sales tax hike and handing it over to the schools. (See
Editorial, "Defining Needs and Wants," The Gazette, January 28, 2007.)

There are a lot of ideas out there -- tried and proven out elsewhere -- that can simultaneously increase the quality of the educational experience while decreasing the cost of K-12 education.

Want an example? As a school board member, I pointed out to my colleagues before the most recent bond issue that if they would read, and apply, the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year we would instantaneously eliminate all problems of "crowding" in the high schools, reduce costs, and improve our high school seniors' preparation for higher education -- and for life -- without spending a dime. "Local control of schools" means a community can decide it would rather pay for a $40 million bond issue (the biggest chunk of which went to the high schools), and that's what we did. But the option was there. There are numerous other examples in the literature.

As the editorial points out, one of the advantages of bonding -- rather than open-ended sales tax revenues -- is that it forces both school administrators and taxpayers to focus on specific new construction and capital improvement projects, and their budgets, while deciding, as the editorial phrases it, which are the "needs" and which are the "wants."

My view on the 20% sales tax increase vote February 13? I think the issues are much more complicated than either the proponents or opponents are willing to admit.

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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story, these blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006. Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.) For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006. My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006. And the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References". A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 (updated January 17, 2007) is also available.]

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Media Stories and Commentary

Carlos Jayne, "New laws, not new prisons, are Iowa's answer," Des Moines Register, January 28, 2007

"Letters to the Editor: Athletics and Academics," Des Moines Register, January 28, 2007
  • Jon Torgerson, Education Takes a Back Seat to Athletics
  • Ken Schumacher
  • James I. Mackay
  • Caroline Peterson, Grassley is Fiddling While Taxpayers Burn
  • Sam Osborne, Let's Make It Fair
Editorial, "Defining Needs and Wants," The Gazette, January 28, 2007

Diane Heldt, "Emeritus faculty continue to contribute; Scrutiny stems from recent questions about resources granted former hospital director," The Gazette, January 28, 2007

Editorial, "Hospital Turnover and Open Presidential Searches; Our quick take on last week's news stories," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 27, 2007

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Anonymous said...

I have some questions for you about the jail;
1. The population of the jail has grown at about 3% per year for the past twenty years and the population of the county has grown at about 1.5% over the same time interval. For the past four years the jail has grown at about 4.5% per year. What do you think can be done to reduce the growth rate?
2. The glue that holds the Johnson County Criminal Justice System together is about 2000 offenders. About 6% are incarcerated and the other 94% are on pretrial release, probation, parole, waiting to get into jail to serve their sentence, on home detention or in a residential work release facility. To solve jail crowding the judges will have to move 3% from the jail into an alternative program. They have not done so. Why not?

Anonymous said...

You are only seeing one angle on the jail. There is also a facilities angle. The current structure is 25 years old. It is used 24/7/365. The building itself is worn out and basically fully depreciated. It needs replacement even if you just leave it at the same capacity. That of course would be stupid in a county that has grown by almost 40,000 people since the current jail was built.