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Academics, Athletics, and Being a UT Alum

"Your last game as a student isn't necessarily saying goodbye, but it really does represent a significant step in life...after you move into the "real world," nothing is really ever the same." --My Cousin

I previously used this quote in my post about Senior Night for the basketball team.  Since then, a few things have changed.  On a personal level, I graduated from UT Law, receiving my second degree from UT.  But the changes discussed within this post reside outside a personal level.  They are changes that have dramatically adjusted my core beliefs over my fandom for collegiate sports.  And they have led me to believe that it's possible that, after moving into the "real world," nothing really does ever feel the same.

The changes that I'm referring to are the near decimation of March Madness and the Realignment Madness that resulted in the Big 12-2.  Each of these events laid bare the hyper-monetization and professionalization of college athletics and the vast discrepancies between the "haves" and "have-nots."  While neither of these events revealed anything that most fans didn't already know, they have left me with a strangely sour taste in my mouth.  A taste that I never felt in my seven years as a student on the Forty Acres.   A taste that has sustained itself, especially when reading articles like this one.

Put more simply, the past few months have led me to reanalyze my fandom for college sports.  With the Big 12-2 becoming the final (?) solution for Texas, I was upset by the result before Scipio Tex's famous "Texas Trinity" article put me in a further state of semi-depression and confusion.  In continuing to analyze my feelings, I've become constantly stuck when fleshing out the academic/athletic connection and how much it *really* matters for past, present, and future students of a university.

After the jump, I'm going to lay out my current thoughts on this connection (or lack thereof) between academics and athletics, which involves becoming severely conflicted from a big-picture perspective.

In life, there are few things easier than rooting for a college team as a kid and then as a student of that college. This is especially true for Texans who attend the University of Texas.  For us lucky few, beating our rivals in every sport becomes a matter of both school and state pride.  Those games matter.  Winning those games matters.  

But, lately, I'm having a tougher time distinguishing *why* it matters on a level different from rooting for a professional team.  And, once again, this is especially because I'm a Texas fan.  Based on its decisions in the Realignment Madness and its recent paranoia related to football practices (even the two "open" practices), UT is starting to feel less like a college team--and more like a pro team--than any other school in the country.  In fact, some actions from pro teams could even be viewed as being more accessible and fan-friendly than some of the recent decrees coming from Belmont.  As a whole, these decisions are not necessarily a bad thing, but they take away from what has been traditionally identified as the typical relationship between a college program and its most dedicated fans.  And it is these type of bonds that are supposed to transcend the experience of fans of a professional franchise.

Going even deeper, I'm still trying to fully understand *why* athletics even matters. Last year, in what turned out to produce a very informative and interesting thread, I wrote a post questioning whether a school's athletic success was a valid precursor for boasting in a professional context.  Additionally, I used the post as a springboard for discussing whether students and alumni should cite athletics as a way of pumping up the value of their respective degrees.  In the comments, there were several readers who noted the "front porch" theory of athletics, saying how it helps boost the public stature of a university, which can coincidentally help improve its academic rankings.  I think this is a valid point, and I think everyone would agree that some basic connection exists between academics and athletics.

That said, it's hard for me to grasp how winning or losing football games really affects the academic stature of the University of Texas, yet those games are something I spend hours upon hours obsessing about.  In fact, in typing those words, I'm already thinking about some of the upcoming football games right now.  Yet all the feelings of anxiety and excitement over the upcoming games seem somewhat mitigated by examining them in a larger context.  The context of academics.  More specifically, the context of academic rankings. 

Everyone can point out the flaws and limitations of the US News Rankings.  I don't mean to cite to them as doctrine, but the reality is that they are the most commonly cited rankings and, sadly, despite their flaws and limitations, they seem to matter.  For the purposes of this post, I don't mean to critique anyone's decision to attend a particular school, and I absolutely don't mean to critique or belittle any other University.  Economics, location, and countless other factors weigh into the decision of where to attend a school, and each school offers strengths and weaknesses in various categories and individual colleges.  When it comes to picking a college, what's good for the goose will not always be good for the gander.  Furthermore, as will be clear later in the post, I'm not trying to over-inflate or pump up UT's academic stature.  Texas currently remains a Top-15 public university with some programs that rank highly and others that lag behind.

Winning or losing games against certain teams in our conference *feels* like it matters, but, in the larger context as an alum, I'm having a harder time seeing it.  The final Big 12-2 result has left us in a situation where literally none of the remaining schools (with the potential exception of A&M) are currently considered to be our immediate academic peers. None of them.  And that makes everything feel a little hollow to me, while the Pac-10 or Big Ten could have been a different ballgame.  Texas is definitively viewed as being academically inferior to multiple schools from each of those conferences, and it would have seemingly raised the stakes of the games with our new conference mates.  In the current context, if we lose to certain members of the Big 12-2, then it just seems somewhat irrelevant. You beat us, but you still go to a low-ranked school in a terrible location and your athletic department is in a dire financial situation...umm, congrats?   That's incredibly elitist--which is something I traditionally despise--but it's just where I'm at right now.  And I don't think I'm alone.    

In picking the Big 12-2, we basically decided to remain the big fish who wants to get even bigger (and have its own network).  There's nothing wrong with that, but there's a lot that doesn't feel right about it, either.  I understand that it's weird to feel this way, especially since I didn't feel this way before the Realignment Madness.  As I said earlier, beating our conference rivals in every sport has been a matter of both school and state pride.  Those games have mattered, and winning those games has mattered even more, regardless of the larger context of academic rankings.  What could have possibly changed?  

I think my current conflictions relate back to one of my original points, which is that the current hyper-monetization and professionalization of college athletics has made rooting for the Texas Longhorns feel more like rooting for a professional franchise than it ever has in the past. And that undercuts the nature of the warm and fuzzy feelings over school and state pride.  It's different (and easier) to root for the University of Texas than to root for Texas, Inc.

I'm still going to live-and-die with every game and spend more hours than I care to admit fretting about our football and basketball team.  Nothing will ever change that.  But, in writing this post, I cant help but wonder if my current thoughts are driven more by finally being a UT alum or are simply the aftereffects of going through the Realignment Madness.

Hook 'Em!