During the few years I lived in Europe, the locals routinely asked about everyday life in America.
There were dozens of questions, of course, but two subjects came up all the time. From their view across an ocean, these seemed to be the strangest things about the United States.
The first was guns. No surprise there.
Most of the civilized world remains puzzled about why Americans insist on shooting one another.
But touchy as that topic might be, it’s a debate for the opinion page. This space is reserved for friendly chats, so please save your Second Amendment thoughts for another time.
Instead, let’s toss out the second thing that absolutely baffles Europeans about American society: big-time college sports.
I know, I know.
University athletics and all the fun associated with them aren’t even questioned here in Snyderville – or anywhere else in this country, really.
(One moment here, while I adjust my new Powercat tie…)
Amazingly enough, however, the rest of the world looks at us and thinks: “Why would a university, seat of culture and learning, be running a pro sports franchise?”
Certainly there have been enough abuses in college sports to fill the Library of Congress.
And now we hear stories that Alabama football coach Nick Saban may bolt to Texas, perhaps for salary around $10 million per year – which would make him the highest paid university employee in the history of the world.
You could forgive a Nobel laureate physics professor at the University of Texas for wondering about skewed values.
Closer to home, hey, calling University of Kansas freshman hoop star Andrew Wiggins a “student” is beyond hilarious – since he’ll be a millionaire dropout less than a year from now.
Yes, there are things wrong with all of this.
And the subject came up earlier this week when members of the Board of Regents were in Manhattan to visit Kansas State.
“We all know the jokes and funny lines,” said regents chair Fred Logan.
You mean like: “Oklahoma’s football team just wants a university it can be proud of”?
Logan, though, was happy to make the argument that high-profile college sports add enough to a university’s success that they offset occasional problems.
“To use a common expression,” Logan said, “it does serve as the school’s ‘front porch,’ if you will. Sports programs offer exposure, publicity, lots of positive things.”
Money, for instance.
“A number that’s really interesting,” Logan said, “is that in our system, 82 percent of donors to athletic programs also, at some point, donate to the academic side of the university.
“It’s interesting. People will start, say, as football donors. Then they become more a part of the university and they wind up involved with different programs – and they’ll donate there.”
The other rather odd statistic is that success in major sports generally produces a spike in student enrollment applications.
The regents are watching to see if Wichita State attracts more quality applicants after its run to basketball’s Final Four.
“Of course there can be difficulties, and we trust our administrators to avoid them as best they can,” Logan said. “But looking at the big picture, sports are a plus to a university community.”
Great, I can keep my new tie without feeling guilty.