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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
[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Education takes a back seat to athletics

The Ohio State faculty votes to turn down a spot in the Rose Bowl because the team had played in a bowl game the year before. Notre Dame decides to no longer play in bowl games because to do so is inconsistent with its mission as a university.

The dream of an ivory-tower professor? No. The first happened in 1961; the second was in effect from 1925 after Notre Dame's first bowl until 1970, when it played its second.

I know we cannot return to a time when faculty votes mattered or when a university's mission required the athletic programs to be consistent with the academic mission. But maybe, just maybe, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley's proposal to look at the tax-exempt status of gifts to amateur athletics will provide the opportunity to rethink the mission of colleges, universities and even high schools.

Wouldn't it be interesting if a school told a contributor that all gifts would be spent on those programs that best serve the mission of the university? I know this is too much to ask. So, let me propose a first step.

In order to keep the tax exemption for gifts to athletics, we should require the donor to make a matching gift to the academic side of the university - a dollar for athletics and a dollar for the humanities, sciences or arts. The same would apply to the public school system. Gifts for a new football field would have to be matched by the donor with contributions to the book budget, English as a second language programs, meals for children and other underfunded necessities. The stuff that dreams are made of...

- Jon Torgerson,

professor of philosophy,
Drake University,
Des Moines.

I enjoyed your Jan. 18 article describing Sen. Chuck Grassley's scrutiny of the tax-deductibility of gifts to college athletics.

We have been subjected to evangelizing by Iowa State University athletic director Jamie Pollard, who is attempting to convince us that superiority in athletics is critical to Iowa State, and that we should get behind his empire-building.

I do not recall hearing a convincing argument of its relevance to the educational mission of the school. Perhaps I am not the only one who doubts the existence of such an argument.

To those who believe big-time college athletics contribute to excellence in higher education, I suggest an offering by Frank Deford, senior writer at Sports Illustrated magazine and arguably the nation's foremost sports journalist. On Jan. 10, his commentary on NPR's Morning Edition described a situation in which Birmingham Southern College dropped all athletic scholarships, freeing up millions of dollars for academics. Freshman applications and alumni contributions increased and the college added opportunities for students to compete in athletics.

So go get 'em, Senator Grassley. You don't necessarily need to shut them down, but I'd like you to scare the hell out of them. It would do us good - especially those of us who work in the arts - to see jocks spend some time worrying about their futures.

As for Pollard, who warns us against "opening up that can of worms," I advise him that it is his can, containing his worms, and that it is actions such as his that make people wonder what is inside.

- Ken Schumacher,

Jamie Pollard, Iowa State University's athletic director, has gone too far. His decision to effectively raise prices for the 2007 football game against the University of Iowa seems wrong and disloyal to Iowa taxpayers and fans who can't afford to pay the price.

While Pollard's decision may be arguable, his behavior in defending his decision is not acceptable for a high-profile public official. His "all or nothing" attitude about becoming a consistent top performer in Division I raises questions about the true costs, both moral and financial, of success at this level.

Do we really want to win at all costs, as Pollard's comments imply? Are results on the athletic field more important than those in research labs and classrooms?

If we can't sustain the research, teaching, public service and athletic missions of our universities, where do we make the cuts and sacrifices? Has it really come to that, or are we dealing with an overly ambitious young athletic director who is out of line and unchecked in his quest for recognition?

If it becomes a showdown between athletic programs and the other missions of Iowa's universities, I will choose to save the academics, return to the concept of a true student-athlete and gladly bid farewell to Jamie Pollard and his bosses, who apparently indulge his petulant behavior.

Maybe Sen. Charles Grassley's recent courageous call for debate on the deductibility of athletic donations will be a platform to consider the broad, and potentially corrupting, consequences of college athletics on the values and missions of our great universities.

- James I. Mackay,
West Des Moines.

Grassley is fiddling while taxpayers burn

Caroline Peterson

The Jan. 18 article, "Should Donations to College Athletics Be Tax-Deductible?" will surely spur much debate among Hawkeye and Cyclone devotees and people who are less enthusiastic about sports.

Whether or not donations to college athletics are worthy tax deductions is really not my concern. What I'm disturbed by, and downright sick of, is politicians micro-managing issues and ignoring the big picture.

The real problem here is that we have a complex, outdated and inefficient tax code. It is in need of major reforms. But everyone knows that to change the entire tax structure, such as converting to a flat tax, would be a huge undertaking. It would require logical thinking and open-mindedness - both weaknesses for most elected officials. It's much easier for Sen. Charles Grassley to pick on the large salaries of a few college coaches than to actually think critically about the tax structure on a whole.

People will forget in a week that the whole topic was even brought up, and Grassley can claim that he tried to make the system better. That's all it really takes to get re-elected, isn't it?

What if people realized that if they didn't have to pay as much in taxes, they could actually spend more money on things they enjoy - like college athletics?

- Caroline Peterson,
Des Moines

Let's make it fair

Sam Osborne

If those who support athletics are to lose tax deductibility for their contributions, how about patrons of the arts? And maybe we should eliminate the deductibility of contributions made in support of Washington think tanks that promote legislation that favors one taxpayer over another.

- Sam Osborne,
West Branch