Sunday, May 08, 2011

ESPN Tries to "Wrestle With The Truth" at UNO

The story of UNO's decision to drop football and wrestling went national this morning, as ESPN broadcast a 10 minute story about the wrestlers and how they've been devastated by the decision to discontinue UNO's wrestling program. It's was a story high on emotion, and woefully short on details. Details that explain why UNO was making the change, for example, and how the events of March came to be. It also adds it's own set of muddled, self-contradicting details in a companion story posted online that casts even more doubt on the case against Trev Alberts and UNO.

The original story broke at the worst possible time: as the wrestling team was celebrating their third straight national championship. I don't believe that was intentional; the timing of the announcement was forced by the Omaha World-Herald. Not that there is ever a good time to announce this sort of thing... but some times are worse than others. And it's a sad story, to be sure. The wrestlers did nothing wrong. They got caught up in a numbers game outside of their control. It's unfortunate, but whether we like it or not, budgets are under pressure on college campuses across the nation. Look at Nebraska-Lincoln, where chancellor Harvey Perlman is cutting programs and raising tuition. At UNO, the athletic department receives nearly $6 million a year in funds from the school itself; money that probably should be spent on academic programs, some could argue.

ESPN's online version of the story tries to make the case that Alberts is using questionable accounting, but the expert in question, economist Andy Schwarz, is the one with the questionable accounting:
"UNO had 36 football scholarships divided among 77 of the 121 football players from this past season, and players such as Davis were paying the more expensive out-of-state tuition. The university counts the cost of athletic scholarships as an expense against the football department, but it doesn't count the tuition that student-athletes pay as revenue. If it did, Schwarz said the football program could count at least an additional $700,000 in revenue, and for wrestling it would be at least $200,000."
Counting the tuition and fees that athletes pay to the school is certainly revenue to the school, but not the athletic department. If you include that revenue, then you absolutely have to include the expenses the school incurs while educating these athletes...a figure that's nowhere to be seen in the ESPN report. I don't have that number either, but considering that the University of Nebraska is a state-sponsored school and receives support from state government, that's likely pretty close to (and more likely higher) than the tuition revenue athletes pay. If that's the "smoking gun" that UNO wrestling and football supporters have been counting on, well, that backfired.

The story also rehashed the David Sokol allegation that UNO's football program was sacrificed so that it was no longer a threat to the Husker football program. Of course, ESPN's report didn't attribute that statement, knowing that since making that statement, Sokol has become part of a bigger controversy after resigning from Berkshire Hathaway due to ethical concerns with his stock purchases of a company Warren Buffett was purchasing.  Frankly, it's a silly argument.

Could UNO football become a "powerhouse", as Van Deeb argued? Hardly, I believe. UNO football averaged around 3800 fans a game last season. For comparison, UNO drew nearly as many fans for two hockey games against Wisconsin as the football team drew all season. Some fans point to the success of the Omaha Nighthawks, but fail to realize the difference between professional football (granted, not NFL, but with players that were stars in college) and division 1-AA football (teams like Northern Iowa and Tennessee-Chattanooga). Oh, and the Nighthawks wisely scheduled their games away from Husker games, playing on two Friday nights, a Thursday night, and a Saturday when the Huskers had a bye-week.  UNO can't do that, and thanks to the way television contracts manipulate kickoff times, it's nearly impossible to schedule around Nebraska football.

In the past, we've come to expect sloppy reporting from ESPN when it came to coverage of Nebraska football, so I wasn't surprised to find a bunch of errors ("hockey attendance has dropped in recent years") in the details. But I tried to keep an open mind that ESPN might find something, anything, to call UNO's decision into question.

But they didn't. In the end, the only impact of the story was the pain the wrestlers faced in seeing their program end moments after reaching the pinnacle of success.


Matt said...

What's funny is the venom spewed in the article. It was almost personal, as if they were more concerned with trying to take Trev Alberts down a peg instead of taking up the plight of the UNO Wrestling/Football teams.

Sad and pathetic on the part of ESPN. Something truly needs to be done about their apparent stranglehold on sports 'reporting', as it fails to muster any sort of integrity any more.

Sam said...

ESPN failed to show an unbiased point of view on the issue. They talked to four people -- two former football players, a wrestler, and the wrestling coach.

Pretty easy to rout someone with that hand on the table.

And apparently Deeb has turned a deaf ear to everything that has gone on in the advisory committee he claims to have been a part of for 18 years. How did he not know UNO looked at D-1 several years ago; and how did he not know that UNO has had a committee looking at this move for the past 2 years?

And Sokol's gift wasn't much of a gift. He gave the money for the video boards, draped his (his son's) name all over it... but didn't give any money to improve the infrustructure -- no camera, no technology... just these giant monitors.

People just want to be pissed at someone, and they want to inflate their egos.

Is it me, or is ESPN turning into FoxNews Lite?

Aaron said...

They tried to get the UNO admin. to comment, but they refused.

Husker Mike said...

I understand why UNO didn't grant interviews with ESPN. They assumed it was going to come out with a slant, and don't provide them with anything else that they could grab out of context.

I would have tried to respond to that through other media sources (i.e. World-Herald) on Sunday...perhaps even pre-emptively on Saturday.