The University of Oregon Ducks football team has been having a humbling season this year, despite having the best training facility money can buy.
It’s an excellent lesson for the entire state. Money cannot buy competence.
Meanwhile, the University of Oregon earlier this year opened its grand and palatial “Football Performance Center,” outranking its competitors off the field. On the field, though, the University of Oregon Ducks have performed in a style that doesn’t match their ostentatious digs.
In August, the university showed off its football center to the media, and the New York Times detailed the riches: rugs woven by hand in Nepal, Italian couches, Brazilian hardwood floors, a barbershop with hair tools from Milan, chairs upholstered with the same material used in a Ferrari.
“As much a country club as football facility,” wrote Greg Bishop in the New York Times.
“Enough to make an N.F.L. team jealous,” said the accompanying slideshow.
Each locker has a drop-down shelf for helmet and shoulder pads and is specially ventilated to reduce odors. The shower room is made largely of marble. The 170-seat team theater features leather seats (that must be the Ferrari material).
Is it any wonder that several weeks ago Ducks wide receiver Josh Huff got into trouble when he seemed to take the Rose Bowl for granted? Been there, done that. He wants a national championship now. Maybe that’s what happens when a guy works out in a sports facility that, according to its architects, “has a soul.”
The 145,000-square foot center (estimated to cost at least $68 million) was paid for by Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus and the founder of Nike.
“We are the University of Nike,” the Times’ story quoted Jeff Hawkins, the senior associate athletic director of football administration and operations. “We embrace it. We tell that to our recruits.”
While Hawkins couldn’t hear his own gushing sycophancy, the Times’ writer and many of the 300-plus commenters were not fooled – or impressed.
“This building will add little to anyone’s football skills,” wrote one. It’s a recruiting tool to attract the few national high school seniors who might be N.F.L. prospects, the commenter said.
And what will happen to most of those who don’t make the cut for the N.F.L., asked another commenter:
“How will they readjust to the real world after training in such opulence and living like a celebrity for a few years?”
Others pointed out that schools such as the University of Washington, Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA have academic reputations to rival their athletics. Where is the UO’s academic reputation?
A few years ago, the UO alumni magazine boasted this exciting piece of cutting-edge news: The UO Book Store would no longer be called a book store. It would now be called The Duck Store. Sure, university book stores sell more than just books, but to rename one after a sports mascot?
(The UO football center’s operations room is made of magnetic walls that can be written on, and the intent is to do away with paper. Maybe someone there should read the November 2013 Scientific American essay on “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.” Then again, why bother? What does any of that have to do with education?)
Phil Knight has given money for other causes at the UO besides sports, but they pale in comparison to the football center, and none of them have the swagger of sports.
I’m a UO graduate who never attended a single football game. I don’t begrudge someone else for being an avid football fan. We all have different interests.
Even so, I vividly remember the annual rivalry game in 2002 between the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. By then I had returned to the Pacific Northwest and was hearing a lot about the coming “Civil War” between my alma mater and OSU.
On the day of the game, I put on a beautiful green UO sweater I rarely wore when I lived in Southern California. Later while shopping at Nordstrom in downtown Portland, I noticed an older man giving me a hard glare.
“We crushed you,” he gloated. “Crushed.”
At first I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then I noticed his orange OSU jacket. I was about to smile and toss off, “Oh, really? I haven’t kept score in years,” but there was cruelty in his face. He looked like he was waiting for a reason to get malicious. I turned and walked away.
Several years after that encounter I saw that man’s face on a different fan – this time in Spokane, Wash., at a Gonzaga University basketball game. An older man, standing up in the bleachers, wearing a golf sweater and slacks, jeering – and grabbing his crotch.
I was working at The Spokesman-Review, and one of our photographers took a picture of this man, probably somebody’s God-fearing grandfather – threatening opposing fans with his dick. Of course, we didn’t run that photo, although it perfectly captured what has become an ugly side of sports.
The money lavished on sports contributes to the lop-sided priority that has been given to star athletes. Considering how many top athletes come from rough beginnings, a cushy environment isn’t a prerequisite and might even be a distraction. (See the 1976 movie “Stay Hungry” starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
Certainly there are useful lessons to be taught by sports, especially now. For one, there’s the tangible work of sports. You can’t bullshit your way to a touchdown.
Imagine a player who consistently performed as poorly as the employees behind the Cover Oregon Website. In football, such a player would be jeered off the field. In state government, excuses are made – even though much more is at stake than a football game.
Instead of using the best lessons that sports has to offer, we’re embracing its glitz, the same way the UO has resorted to empty symbolism to justify over-the-top extravagance.
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood,” is the quote from Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham that the alumni magazine uses to begin its coverage of the football center in the Autumn 2013 Oregon Quarterly.
Comparing the rebuilding of 19th Century Chicago, which touched the lives of everyone who lived there, is hardly comparable to building a football facility that only a few will benefit from directly, and that many can only gaze at like a JumboTron.
“It is nothing if not ambitious,” the magazine concludes. “But the ordinary rarely stirs men’s blood.”
Bill Bowerman, armed with an ordinary waffle iron, would probably disagree.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons