News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Liz Ciancone

March 13, 2012

LIZ CIANCONE: Business taking the fun out of athletics

Remember when college sports were actually games? A good, friendly rivalry added spice to the Saturday afternoon festivities when I was in college. My ticket was paid by my college fees and, after the game, we’d all go down to “Jimmie’s Tea Room” for cocoa or coffee to warm up.

One of my classmates was actually signed by the pros. Larry played for the Los Angeles Rams and for considerably less than the millions now on offer as a signing bonus.

What used to be a game has become big business and it has taken the fun out of it for me. A coach who fails to bring home a trophy or a bid to a major bowl game is scanning the “help wanted” ads.

On the flip side, he/she may be tempted to cut corners and wink at league rules. The late Vince Lombardi may have been ahead of the curve when he famously said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!”

Example? The University of Illinois has reported laid out more than $7.1 million to buy out the contracts of three coaches: Ron Zook, ex-football coach, banked $2.6 million; Bruce Weber, ex-basketball coach, pocketed $3.9 million; and women’s ex-basketball coach, Jolette Law, was a distant third at $620,000.

Athletic director Mike Thomas assured the press that no institutional money (read that “taxpayer dollars”) is involved. “Those buyouts are paid with Division of Intercollegiate Athletics money,” Thomas said. “Those are moneys that come out of our budget. We’re not receiving any institutional aid.” Maybe, but I’ll bet that a pittance from that budget would look awfully good to a liberal arts student trying to struggle through on student loans.

But why pick on Illinois? Indiana University has played musical chairs with coaches, too. Nor is it only state-supported colleges and universities in the sports business. But when money is tight, it would comfort me to know that my taxes are being spent for a more noble end than entertainment.

It’s not only sports. We have become a nation of watchers rather than doers. We sit and watch television. We sit and watch movies. We go to a stadium to watch and wave a plastic foam hand to proclaim, “We’re Number One!” all the while consuming hot dogs and popcorn and beer and, here’s a laugh, DIET soda. We are paying big money to watch others exercise for us while we get broad in the beam and fatten up those “love handles.”

Games were fun. Now that games are big business I’m going to the gym, not the stadium. I’d like to think my tax dollars are going to pay for student scholarships.

Liz Ciancone is a retired Tribune-Star education reporter. Her personal column has appeared on this page for more than 20 years. Send e-mail to

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    March 12, 2010