Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 28, 2012

Making sport of education shows priorities are now adding up on the small screen

— — The tail is wagging the dog and television supplies much of the feed to make that happen. At least, that was the gist of a conversation earlier this week which included several sports commentators and noted writer Frank Deford, who has covered nearly every sport over the past 50 years for Sports Illustrated magazine.

 Their opinions all struck close to the truth as they discussed the recent and ongoing story about the scandal at Penn State. Although the original story is about the child sex abuse allegations involving former PSU defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, almost everyone is arriving at the obvious conclusion that the situation is becoming more and more an issue of money. For example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has severely disciplined Penn State, including a $60 million fine to be repaid at the rate of $12 million annually for each of the next five years.

That $60 million figure has been quoted as the total revenue amount collected by the program in an average year. The late coach Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, if that statement is true, was one of the better-funded programs in America. A $60 million budget would probably come close to more than paying for the total yearly expenditures in Tazewell and Mercer Counties combined. It becomes clear that protecting the reputation of such a program is ultimately about taking care of that enormous amount of money.

 The NCAA applied several other sanctions but refused to ban Penn State from appearing on television. The reason, of course, is money. Several (all?) Big 10 teams have lucrative broadcasting fees to be earned from appearing on TV games and should Penn State be barred from the tube then those teams on the Nittany Lion schedule would lose their revenue. To be frank, the dollar trumps all other concerns.

Since ESPN came to be the premier sports network after its founding in 1979, its impact on the nation and the world has been incredible. Deford made the statement that the network has more impact than all the print media combined. He was not jealous and neither am I but the fact remains that our society as a whole has its priorities more focused on sports than nearly anything else. 

As a life-long sports fan and sports writer/announcer for more than 30 years, few love ball games more than I do. It is certainly easy to recognize the priorities, however, and the incredible amounts of money that television has been able to funnel into the athletic arena has changed the landscape. Cities and localities of all sizes have been faced with high-dollar decisions about building or helping to build stadiums, for instance, for sports teams that are often among the most important sources of revenue in the municipal system. Much of that influence comes from the power of television and I admit that I, like many, spend quite a bit of time watching just about every kind of game on the screens while my educational and political viewing is much more limited.

 As a teacher my primary job is to convince the children of education’s importance. In recent years, it becomes apparent that if our main concern is money then we should not steer the boys and girls toward doctors or dentists or teacher’s jobs but instead we need to promote a sports career. Look at the numbers if you doubt that. For instance, according to published reports, the president of West Virginia University, James Clements, will make something approaching $650,000 next year while the football coach, Dana Holgorsen, will have a salary over $1 million with many attached bonuses to increase that. I am happy for Coach Holgorsen — he deserves what he can get in the free market system. Down at Virginia Tech, president Charles Steger earns more than $750,000 per annum. That is a good salary by any standard but football coach Frank Beamer brings in some $2.3 million annually. I personally like Coach Beamer and do not begrudge him a single bit. Whenever I can I watch the Hokies either in person or on TV, listen to them on the radio and do the same for Coach Holgorsen’s talented Mountaineers. Beamer is a fine man and so is Coach Holgorsen as far as I know and in the American system, they fairly earn whatever they can get from their employers. Their respective schools are fortunate that both have good character.

Coaches are under enormous pressure, especially in these times when the best athletes often leave school after only one year because of the incredible money to be made between the lines. I have always heard that money means power and have no reasons to doubt that. Adults have also traditionally told children that education comes first. More than ever I definitely doubt that at the college level — and beyond. I seriously doubt that any coach in any local school system, no matter how many games he or she might have won, makes more money than the superintendent of schools. 

So, when the employee is more powerful than the leader of any group, it is fairly easy to see why our system is quite likely poised for more dramatic falls and perhaps a complete collapse before much longer. That’s enough for now — it’s almost time for Sports Center.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.  

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