In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower issued a dire warning. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower said. Eisenhower’s prescient speech didn’t dissuade America from continuing its involvement in the arms race of the Cold War.
Given the strategies of the new football staff at the University of Tennessee, it appears another warning is warranted. To paraphrase Eisenhower; “We must guard against furthering the unwarranted influence of the sports-entertainment complex.”
College football is already locked in an arms race. Facilities expand incessantly — Neyland Stadium’s facelift alone will cost $200 million. Coaching salaries escalate exorbitantly — $5.325 million for head coach Lane Kiffin’s staff, including $2 million for Kiffin and $1.2 million for Monte Kiffin, the head coach’s father.
More troubling than the money madness, though, is the professionalization of UT football. Perhaps it’s somewhat understandable. Kiffin came from the Oakland Raiders. His father was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron last coached for the New Orleans Saints.
But the professionalization goes disturbingly deeper. The News Sentinel’s Dave Hooker last week documented how displays at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex flash photos of pro players, some from UT, others who played at other schools for one of UT’s new coaches. The message to recruits: We can get you to the NFL.
In the News Sentinel this week, Athletic Director Mike Hamilton was asked about selling the NFL instead of promoting UT’s football tradition. “That’s the reality of it,” Hamilton said. “A lot of (recruits) are not as concerned about traditions and probably don’t know our traditions.”
There’s a bigger problem here than selling techniques. Many young men dream of playing in the pros but shift their focus to their education when their lack of size or speed or strength or skill pushes them to the sidelines. I saw firsthand how damaging unrealistic dreams can be when I coached football at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., many moons ago.
Doing double duty as the academic adviser, I heard player after player with academic struggles say, “Coach, nobody ever made me study.” Too many authority figures sent the message that athletics was their ticket to success, and their eyes were mainly on a pro football career.
We didn’t discourage their dreams, but we dealt in reality — play hard but plan for the future. According to a 2007 study by the NCAA, of 1,071,775 high school football players in America, only 17,501 went on to play NCAA football. Of those college players, only 250 were drafted by the NFL. The NCAA estimates the probability of a high school football player making the NFL at 0.08 percent.
Sure, UT currently has 38 former players in the NFL, but the overall percentage of NCAA players who go to the NFL is only 1.8 percent. What does that say about selling UT as a four-year training camp for the NFL?
At best, UT’s new coaches come off as hired guns who are using the university to entertain the masses while they advance their own careers. At worst, UT’s football staff, with the blessing of the athletic director, is promoting a pipe dream to the vast majority of players. By doing so, they perpetuate the sports-entertainment complex that exerts devastating influence on so many of America’s youth by diminishing the importance of education.
Greg Johnson is an East Tennessee native and resident. His columns appear in the News Sentinel on Thursdays, Fridays and every other Sunday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.