Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.26.07

Exploiting the Game
Baseball, cheerleaders being misused

What better evidence of what baseball means to me can there be than that I’ve stayed loyal to — though frustrated by — my lifelong Big Leagues team, the Chicago Cubs? I love the sport better than any other from my two decades of working in college athletics. But I reject the idea of bringing it back to the UO after 27 years because the premise is misguided and misdirected.

Reviving the sport has more to do with exploitation of the game and its student athletes than it does with any sudden appreciation for baseball. I trust the novice director of athletics, Pat Kilkenny, when he says some baseball alumni strongly support his proposal. But there is little to trust about his reason for allowing them to influence him.

College sport has become big business, and we can’t expect it to be altruistic. His priority is to raise money for a new basketball arena whose projected cost has mushroomed to an amount that reflects unrealistic priorities — almost $200 million, and counting. Reinstating baseball will earn Kilkenny access to some baseball boosters whose rich portfolios make them potential major donors. But it adds an estimated $5 million for a college baseball stadium or its apparent alternative — improvements at Civic Stadium for a venue the Ducks would share with the minor league Ems.

Some have theorized that alumnus Phil Knight of Nike — a generous donor to the university and to athletics — might be inclined to give more with the return of baseball. Knight was a trackman at Oregon, but his wife supposedly is a baseball fan. That is stretching it more than a bit. If Knight is on the arena bandwagon, it’s for his own reasons as it was with the massive gift he gave for expansion of Autzen Stadium.

The baseball boondoggle is compounded by responsibilities to Title IX, federal legislation intended to assure a proportional balance of participants for men and women. Baseball will extend the current disparity in favor of men because its commitment to player grants is greater than that for the sport it replaces, wrestling.

But wait. Kilkenny proposes increased involvement for women through the “sport” of cheerleading. Trouble is, that is not an authorized sport of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), nor do other schools in the Pac-10 Conference give it varsity sports identity. Women are exploited by the sexist character of cheerleading, where squads are predominently female with occasional isolated males.

I’ve watched games and cheerleading in hundreds of stadia and gyms, and I’ve long known generating of spirit to be a secondary function of cheerleading. Primary is titillation for crowds of mainly male fans by scantily clad females. As for stirring crowds in other ways, the impact is on orchestrated cheering, not the genuine, spontaneous kind. Cheerleaders give as generously of their time and energy as varsity athletes. But to suggest they perform in a varsity sport is naive and self-serving.

Many alumni of gymnastics and swimming would like to see their sports reinstated. I was UO sports information director when those sports and baseball were dropped. Having to make those announcements was the most difficult task I had in college sport. No doubt wrestling alumni justifiably object to their sport being dropped in arbitrary fashion, especially after former coach Ron Finley cut corners and personally raised funds to sustain his sport.

Maybe there is a way to get these sports back, consistent with what I see as the Kilnenny philosophy of athletics. Identify some financially successful former swimmers, gymnasts and wrestlers. They could join the list of shortsighted underwriters for an unneeded new gym and bide their time (a long time) for the return of their sports.

Forget replacing McArthur Court and funding a new baseball facility. Instead do what two courageous and outspoken faculty members, James Earl and Richard Sundt, have done publicly: Urge the misused largesse of sports donors be shifted, if they approve, to where it is most needed and best could be used — to bolster suffering academic programs which, unlike varsity sport, are fundamental to the UO’s stated mission.

It’s unfortunate it comes down to marketing a product. Sports have become proficient at that. Now it’s time for the staff in University Relations to take their cue from sports promoters and convince major donors to sports to shift their giving to academia.

George Beres was sports information director at the UO from 1976-82 and before that at his alma mater, Northwestern University. He also broadcast Big Ten sports for eight years. His half-hour interview show, To Pursue the Truth, appears weekly on Community TV.