LSU’s Athletic Department Succumbs To Stupid Symbolic Thinking

It appears the latest manifestation of the athletic “arms race” among NCAA schools, and SEC schools in particular, is the construction of high-end athletic dining halls, now being called “nutrition centers.”

LSU, which is expected to compete on the top level of schools participating in the “arms race,” has one such facility on the drawing board. In fact, the $12 million to build it has already been raised from private donors and is sitting in the bank.

But construction isn’t going to happen any time soon.

“Due to proposed state budget cuts to higher education that would significantly impact LSU, the athletic department has decided to delay breaking ground on our new Tiger Athletic Nutrition Center, which was scheduled for later this spring.

“Though all of the money has been raised, through private donations, to complete the project, we feel that the current climate of austerity surrounding our university compels us to move in a more deliberate manner.

“The Tiger Athletic Nutrition Center is essential for the well-being of our student-athletes as we continue to provide all of the necessary resources in order for them to perform at the highest level, both in the classroom and in competition.

“The Tiger Athletic Nutrition Center will become a reality, but we will wait until we can gauge how the budget cuts will affect LSU before starting the project.”

One could react to this by seeing a pattern with the athletic director who made this decision. It was already a viable criticism of Joe Alleva, who makes a hefty salary of some $800,000, that he insufficiently fights for the student-athletes in his charge when he essentially threw the Duke lacrosse team under the bus in the midst of an overhyped and ultimately fraudulent scandal arising from a charge of gang rape. The stench of his decision to disband the program at Duke and his resulting deep unpopularity with that university’s athletic boosters was one reason he was willing to submit to a public panel interview viewable online as part of the hiring process for his current job. Now, he’s willing to deny the student-athletes under his charge the benefit of a completed nutrition center in time for the 2016-17 athletic year out of a sense of “optics.”

But there’s a bit more to this beyond beating up Alleva.

One of the most cogent things you’ll hear if you listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show for any length of time is the host’s propensity to decry liberal thinking as “symbolism over substance.” There is no better example of that point than this.

LSU’s athletic department gets no funding from the state of Louisiana, and in fact remits some $7-8 million per year to the academic side of the university. In other words, LSU Athletics is one of LSU’s largest donors. The better the athletic department fares on the field and court, the more ticket sales and television revenue it earns and the larger the check to the university it can afford to cut. There is thus no daylight between the interests of the athletic department and the university at large.

The ability of LSU’s athletic department to continue making a profit and donating to the university in current or larger amounts is dependent on its ability to maintain or improve the results on the field. As its competitors have shown by building similar facilities, there is a consensus around nutrition and the ability to successfully control the athletes’ habits at the training table being a meaningful part of athletic performance.

And therefore it’s a reasonable conclusion that the speed in which Alleva can turn the money raised for a nutrition center into an actual nutrition center could play a factor in games won by LSU’s sports teams and dollars the athletic department generates for the university.

So Alleva is going to voluntarily degrade the substance of his product – namely, the competitiveness of his sports teams – in service to the symbolism of university-wide misery emanating from potential budget cuts? What is this, an attempt at blackmailing LSU’s athletic boosters into lobbying to spare the university from budget cuts? If it is, it’s not a very convincing one.

If the donors who provided that $12 million don’t rise up in fury over this kind of stupidity, they deserve to have been fleeced out of their cash. This is simply atrocious leadership and a terrible example for the college kids at LSU.

You don’t voluntarily impoverish yourself or put yourself at a competitive disadvantage because somebody else suffers misfortune. And the LSU professors who might have to take on a larger workload or forego raises – or suffer a layoff – as a result of the budget cuts the state might impose are no better off by Alleva delaying a project out of sympathy for them; in fact, they’re probably worse off if there is a connection between a good nutrition center and a winning athletic department.

Of course, if the nutrition center doesn’t actually help to produce a winning program then Alleva really has fleeced $12 million out of the donors and he ought to give the money back to them to spend on something else. If LSU was the only school in the SEC building one we’d entertain that proposition more seriously.

We don’t know what Alleva’s political leanings are, and we don’t care. What we do know is that he’s refusing to do his job as athletic director by building that facility, he’s wasting money by delaying the project (because it’s only going to get more expensive the longer he waits to build it) and the decision to sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya with the academics the athletic department funds rather than making whatever decisions he can to provide the best advantages to his student athletes and the most competitive program possible reflects mushy symbolic thinking rather than the pursuit of excellence. An immediate reversal of course is warranted, and Alleva’s superiors – university president F. King Alexander and the LSU Board of Supervisors – ought to demand one as soon as possible.

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