Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Vandy's gesture smacks of being disingenuous


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Vanderbilt University will eliminate its athletic department, a high-minded move as far as it goes. Whether that means the football team will share the cafeteria mystery meat with the common pencil-necks is anyone's guess. Until Vandy renounces the quasi-amateur Southeastern Conference and refuses its cut of the SEC's massive bowl payouts, its gesture is welcome, but symbolic.

"A culture of absolute separation" between jocks and real students caused Chancellor Gordon Gee to make the change. From now on, athletes at Vanderbilt will be just like the rest of us pointy-heads.

That's how it should be, of course. In a sane world, the pre-meds learning to save our lives would get the training tables and the hand-holding tutors, and public school teachers would be making Barry Bonds money.

Regardless, some schools don't need to make dramatic, Vandy-esque pronouncements of high intent. Some do it, anyway.

At Washington and Lee, a Division III school in the hills of Virginia, my housemate was the point guard on a basketball team that won 20 games three of the four years I was there. Another guy in my fraternity merited a tryout with the Boston Celtics. None of us who knew them cared. They drank too much beer and bombed too many midterms, just like we did.

W&L has 23 sports. None is more important than a class called the History of Chemistry, taken by lame, science-impaired students such as myself to satisfy a distribution requirement. Sports at W&L "help to strengthen the overall development of the student, mentally and physically" says Mike Walsh, the athletic director.

Is that a little lofty? What do you expect from a school where the average SAT is 1371? All it really means is, sports are good for you, but don't get a big head if you play. Econ 101 is at 8 in the morning, stud. Be there.

Walsh says the biggest scandal in his 14 years at W&L came when some women's tennis players were drinking beer on a road trip and weren't allowed to play in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship. The mighty Generals have five full-time football coaches, whose combined salaries wouldn't equal one Bobby Bowden. Their shoe deals would be with Sperry Topsider (W&L is a hopelessly preppy place) if they had shoe deals, which they don't.

In 1951, Washington and Lee played in the Gator Bowl and was ranked 18th in the country. In 1953, the football team cheated en masse, on an exam. The university eliminated athletic scholarships. A football schedule that included Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina in '53 featured Hargrave Military Academy in '54.

"Tired of struggling with the unending and unsolvable problems of subsidized athletics and semi-professional football, (W&L) retired from the gridiron" explained the New York Journal-American. The Louisville Courier-Journal went straighter to the point: "Washington and Lee (is) unwilling to offer scholarships to men who are not scholars."

Fifty years later, the place is still standing. There is a lesson there, somewhere. Or maybe not. As Mike Walsh said, "Most big schools are so invested in (sports) now, they can't make the right decision." Vanderbilt has made a right one, as far as it goes. Let the Commodores join the powerhouse Old Dominion Athletic Conference.

Then we'll really have something to talk about.

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E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com




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