Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On professionalism in sports, and reconciling dreams with reality

(This article will get around to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Really.)

This past weekend has me wearing
sackcloth and ashes today.
This past weekend pretty much stunk, and I'm still in a bit of mourning.  My alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, played a football game in which they choked at a historically high level through the fourth quarter against a mediocre-to-poor opponent.  As if that heartbreak wasn't enough, I sat through a day-long series of 9/11 anniversary specials.

Let's be clear: The events of 9/11 overwhelm the significance of any sporting event.  I challenge anyone to dispute that fact.  However, when one's mood is already down, being bombarded with imagery of unspeakable hate, death and devastation isn't necessarily the best tonic.  I know I could have turned the TV off, but it was important and compelling...never mind that the lethargy coming out of a tortured night's sleep thinking about what's happened to my beloved school's premier athletic program over the past 15-plus years didn't exactly supply me with the energy to do much more than sit on the couch.

Big-time college sports is a funny thing, a paradox of sorts.  It's de facto minor league system for professional leagues.  The National Football League doesn't have an official minor league, they have the NCAA schools (and arena football, Canadian football and the United Football League...which, combined, pale in comparison to the NCAA for the number of players they develop and deliver to the NFL).  The NBA now has an official D-League, but I'm again not hearing how basketball players are eschewing the schools for the D-League.  Baseball and ice hockey are a bit different, as the well-established minor league systems aggressively compete with college sports for talent.  The CBJ's John Moore, for example, was committed to Colorado College before skipping school for the CHL's Kitchener Rangers.  And soccer...well, soccer's just weird.

Notre Dame's opening day starter at quarterback,
Dayne Crist.  Banished after one half of terrible play.
 A bright guy, sure to be a great contributor to society.
Not necessarily a big-time college football quarterback.
But the notion of higher education doesn't necessarily mesh with big-time sports.  Education is about teaching, learning and research, not necessarily sports prowess.  Sports do, however, have the potential to make schools lots of money.  While those in charge of athletics raise up the ideal of the "student-athlete", many (most?) schools in charge of the largest programs in the country care more about revenue streams (tv contracts, private donations, ticket sales, merchandise sales) and promotional exposure than about student graduation rates.  Now, with the NCAA poised to punish schools with poor graduation rates, those same schools will only care because they have to.

Notre Dame has cared about big-time sports - and still does.  However, it clearly cares more about the educational and social elements of its mission than it cares about athletics.  This has been growing more and more obvious since Lou Holtz was all but forced out of South Bend.  Still, it pains me to reconcile myself with this fact.  I was enrolled at Notre Dame in the heart of their last heyday - in the late 80's/early 90's.  Now, with a supposedly talented and well-improved team sporting an 0-2 record against teams that it should have soundly defeated, it's clear that any re-ascendancy to the heights of college football will be despite the school's best efforts.  But Notre Dame will remain a great school, one of which I can be very proud for reasons other than football, and that stands for a lot these days.

Terrelle Pryor, left for the pros after being suspended for five games after
TattooGate broke.  Left school for the NFL once coach Jim Tressel was fired.
From this outsider's perspective, he never should have enrolled in college.
Alison at Heart of a Jacket covers an interesting counterpoint in her most recent post, "Converting the Unconvertible".  In many ways, Alison takes the issues that I am dealing with - reconciling the professional nature of big-time sports with the decidedly UN-professional nature of higher education - from the other side.  The Ohio State University has a successful semi-pro team, and its fans love it for what it is.  Never once have I heard a tOSU fan spout off about the school's wide-ranging academic mission, its work in making the world a better place or even anything beyond the fact that (depending on the day) it's either the largest or second-largest public university in the country.  Yet tOSU surely IS an amazing institution, with at least as much to offer the world as Notre Dame.  But it seems like the fans don't care -- well, none that I've run into, anyway.  They simply want the winning and all the trappings that go with it...just like Notre Dame fans have been conditioned to realize that they shouldn't want any more because there are loftier pursuits.

Which brings me to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  (See?  I told you that I'd get there.)

The Blue Jackets are a professional team.  They are a business.  Their job is to create a high rate of return on investment for their owners.  This return largely is achievable by winning.  There are no ulterior motives, no hiding behind alternative missions, no diversion of resources and talent into non-productive areas. They sell tickets, merchandise, advertising and broadcast rights.  (They might also have parking and concessions revenues, too, but you'd have to check with Jeff Little on that.)  Again, everything costs more when you're winning, which boosts revenues.

So when you're a professional team that has tasted the playoffs once in ten seasons and still never emerged victorious in a playoff game, you're talking about some historically impressive and unprofessional ineptness. In fact, the Blue Jackets more resembled a bad high school or college team in their darkest days while the tOSU Buckeye football squad often looked like it could compete admirably in the AFC North.  Who was Columbus' professional team again?

So even though the Blue Jackets said all the right things on media day today and apparently exuded optimism if not confidence, you'll have to excuse me for playing the pragmatist and not guzzling CBJ kool-aid before even the first preseason puck is dropped.  This is a team that is still trying to become a competitive professional team.  It's not there yet, and no offseason activity can erase that fact until the wins start piling up.  

Until the team starts winning - consistently - I just can't bring myself to entirely trust that this team is doing the right thing.  That baseline skepticism puts me in a "first do no harm position" with valuable emerging assets like Ryan Johansen, where I want to see some wins pile up before putting the kid on the roster. I like what I'm seeing of the new roster on paper, but they just have to show me something on the ice over time. My kool-aid more resembles holiday egg nog, if you will.  If the CBJ are still playing strong through Christmas, I'll be a hysterical fool for this club.  Until then, my arms will remain at least partially folded.

Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere.  I'm still a Blue Jackets fan.  I was a rabid Detroit Lions fan from before Billy Sims tore up the Pontiac Silverdome until Matt Millen and Rod Marinelli ran the team into the ground with their epic 0-16 campaign.  By my estimation, that's a little more than 30 years of tolerating painfully inept "professional" football.  And I'm putting my money where my mouth is, having purchased tickets to more CBJ games this year than ever before and bringing a new fan into the mix in the process.  As I am wont to say, "I'm loyal but not a lemming."

I just want to see my favorite professional team play like professionals and live up to the reasonable expectations that their fans have for them.  This surely can't be too much to ask, especially now that my favorite college team has apparently decided to abandon their longtime aspirations of gridiron glory.

That all being said, I'll leave you with a note of unbridled optimism from this weekend.  The Blue Jackets sent their prospects up to Traverse City for the annual prospects camp, and by all accounts it was the deepest Traverse City roster that the team has fielded - perhaps ever. And then, as Notre Dame was laying its monstrous egg, I received word that the Blue Jackets prospects didn't just beat the Red Wings prospects: The CBJ THROTTLED them in the tournament opener, 7-3.

Funny how that works.  A professional team loads up its roster with professional-quality players and plays to win.  Then they DO win.  What a great start to the season.

Give me a whole bunch more of these - preferably in the regular season, when wins and losses mean something - and I'll be dreaming big once again.

2 comments:

  1. Bravo DBJ!

    In 1966 there was a college coached hired, where he wanted to conduct, what he called the "Grand Experiement". He wanted to combine academics, and athletics, in a collegiate environment. Joe Paterno's mission, while admirable has gotten most followers fired, as ultimately the alnumi, and faculty want victories.

    Regarding the CBJ...Throwing money around doesn't always solve problems either. Learning how to win, and not accepting mediocrity is an attitude that needs to be fostered. This starts in the AHL, Training Camp, and Traverse City Tournaments.

    -You know who

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  2. "Never once have I heard a tOSU fan spout off about the school's wide-ranging academic mission, its work in making the world a better place or even anything beyond the fact that (depending on the day) it's either the largest or second-largest public university in the country."

    You're looking in the wrong circles, then. Just look at the comments section of any OSU-related article from espn.com ever since the Florida national championship game. It started out as a favorite reply to the SEC trolls that dominate that site and has been growing in momentum since (the requirements for the Big 10 expansion also got those arguments going).

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