The first time I saw the University of Oregon play football, either live or on television -- hell, the first time I became aware that the University of Oregon fielded a viable major-college football team -- it was the second day of January in 1995. I had just graduated from college, and I was fending off a throbbing hangover in the end zone seats of the Rose Bowl, watching Penn State complete an undefeated season and lose the national championship at the same time. The sun set over the San Gabriel Mountains. The game never really got close. I wore one of the 17 L.L. Bean flannels that comprised my entire wardrobe; the Ducks wore electric pants and emerald jerseys and helmets that appeared to have been slathered with honey mustard sauce. Their uniforms stood out, even then, a thumb in the eye of their region's grungy ethos, as if they'd been contrived by a flamboyant Hollywood costume designer for the sequel to The Program that nobody awaited.
The Ducks lost that game 38-20, and the next year they got throttled 38-6 in the Cotton Bowl by Colorado, and after that, you kind of assumed they'd recede into the landscape, into the vacuum that was college football in the state of Oregon, into the forest of ignominy that had once produced the worst rivalry game in the history of the sport.
It's hard to fathom those games took place only a couple of decades ago; it's kind of astounding to think that those Teletubbies Oregon teams bear any relation to the metallic blur that will face Stanford on Thursday night, in perhaps the most crucial single contest of this entire college football season. What Oregon has done, constructing an abruptly successful football program entirely through the power of modern marketing -- and largely behind the fortune of a single benefactor -- is the most audacious and the most purely capitalistic experiment in modern sports. And even now, I have no idea if I should admire it or fear it.
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After that Rose Bowl game, Oregon officials began to have discussions about improving the football program as a method of promoting the university. After the Cotton Bowl loss the next season -- before they even flew back from Dallas -- they met with Nike CEO Phil Knight, who promised he would give his alma mater everything it needed to achieve sustained success, including a thorough rebranding. Hence: The endless uniform iterations, the massive billboard of former quarterback Joey Harrington in Midtown Manhattan, the late-night airtime purchased on the YES Network so Northeast recruits could watch the Ducks, the eventual adoption of a short-attention span offensive philosophy that embraces speed and excess. And, of course, more than $300 million from Knight himself, which included money for a library renovation and a law center, but much of which went straight into football, into a stadium expansion and an athlete tutoring center and most recently, the (at least) $68 million Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, a Versailles replete with Nepalese rugs and a duck pond and a barbershop with utensils from Milan.
All of this has been well-documented, and all of this is merely a bold twist on an old idea, which is that a successful football program is an efficient way to improve the stature of a university. And, in a general sense, this is true. "If a school does well in football," says Doug Chung, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, "it may spill over to the academic side."
A couple of months ago, Chung published a paper in the journal Marketing Science entitled "The Dynamic Advertising Effect of College Athletics." Intrigued by the "Flutie Effect" in the 1980s at Boston College, Chung studied FBS athletic programs to determine whether improvement in football would cause an increase in admissions. Not surprisingly, it did. The Flutie Effect has a longer and more lasting impact on students with lower SAT scores, Chung found; but he found, too, that "students with high SAT scores are also significantly affected by athletic success." (To achieve similar results, Chung wrote, a school would either have to lower its tuition significantly or recruit higher-paid faculty.)
And so it is easy to argue that Oregon's investment has been worth it. It is easy to declare that everything Oregon has done to improve its football program has increased awareness and increased the number of applicants, and therefore has made Oregon a better university. But maybe there's a breaking point; maybe there comes a moment when the divide between the money invested in the football team and the money invested in academics causes a yawning rift. And maybe, by unilaterally engaging in the construction of an athletic palace on a college campus, Phil Knight is widening that rift nearer to its breaking point.
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There have always been faculty critics of college football: In the late 19th century, wrote author John Sayle Watterson, Charles Eliot at Harvard "deplored the way in which intercollegiate athletics put colleges in the business of entertaining the non-collegiate public"; in the late 20th century, Indiana professor Murray Sperber received death threats for his criticism of Bob Knight. This is understandable, since the idea of reconciling major college athletics and the academic mission of a university is a tenuous one. This is also understandable since colleges are in a constant battle for research funding and professors (especially at state universities) often feel underpaid and undervalued.
And so at Oregon, there are critics, too. Most notably, there is an economics professor, Bill Harbaugh, who runs a blog called UO Matters. But it goes beyond one man: In August, Oregonian columnist Ken Goe spoke to several faculty members who expressed dismay about the in-your-face ostentatiousness of Oregon's new Hatfield-Dowlin football operations center. An English instructor, who had once been told to buy her own dry-erase markers, told Goe she couldn't even look at the photos of the building, because they would just make her angry, "considering the facilities that already were in place for the football team were, in a lot of people's minds, extravagant and more than necessary for non-professional athletes." A sociology professor told Goe that "this is serving more the advertising purposes of Nike and less the academic mission of the university."
There are two simple rejoinders here: The first is that this is Phil Knight's own money, and he can do with it as he pleases. But how far should that autonomy go? Knight made every decision about this new football building; Knight and his people chose the furniture, and the complex, Goe wrote, "was presented to the school as a package." The money is Knight's, but the money is so closely associated with Nike that it's hard to dispel the perception, and I'm not sure Oregon even cares to dispel it anymore: The headline on Greg Bishop's New York Times story about the opulence of the football performance center read, "Oregon Embraces 'University of Nike' Image."
The second rejoinder, of course, is that Oregon is raising its public profile, and therefore becoming a better university by receiving a larger number of applications, as Chung's study proves. But Harbaugh recently posted several graphs based off a university benchmarking report on his website: "Research funding, research output per professor, student SATs, graduation rates, PhD production. You name it, we're at the bottom or close to it (compared to other institutions in the American Association of Universities)," Harbaugh wrote.
And so I wonder if perception starts to become a problem. I wonder if Oregon picked the wrong moment to construct a castle on campus; I wonder, if by attempting to build a dynasty over the course of a relatively short period, they may wind up alienating their core constituency. I mean, as a fan, I love watching the Ducks play. I love the mechanics of their offense, and I love their quarterback, and I love the futuristic possibilities they present. But I wonder if we're nearing the tipping point where this whole construct starts to feel more like an advertising campaign than a college football team.