Going against the grain—or rather corn

For better or for worse, US College athletics are an integral part of US society. However, maintaining a spirit of good sportsmanship should be an essential part of any athletic program.

College sports have a huge impact on US universities; for example, the sports network ESPN published that in 2008, the #1 ranked US college football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, brought in revenues of over $123,000,000, and for 2013, USA Today published that #1 Texas brought in over $165,000,000. That’s not small change, and it helps explain how at most universities, the top paid employee is usually not the university president, chancellor, deans or even medical school brain surgeons – no, it is frequently the football coach.

But the influence of college athletics is not a mere function of money. Coming from the outside, it might be hard for anyone to imagine how much impact college sports have on US society as a whole. When I arrived in the US, it was to the National Institutes of Health that I went for post-doctoral studies, and given that there are so many universities in the DC area, and a large population that supports a variety of professional sports teams, I was practically unexposed to America’s love of college sports. That came only when I moved to Nebraska.

Arriving in the American Midwest in 2003, I realized that not only was Omaha the geographic center of the US (north-south and east-west), but it is also rather isolated from other large population centers. And despite nearly a million people in the metro area, Omaha is not large enough to support professional sports teams – meaning that college sports fill an important void and take on a special emphasis here.

To illustrate how seriously Nebraskans regard college football, I will describe my first Saturday here in Omaha. I drove around the city, interested in learning more about the different areas, and what it has to offer. I couldn’t understand why there was no traffic, and the overall feel was that of a ghost-town. Of course I later learned that the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers college football team had a home game in Lincoln (where the major undergraduate campus is) about 50 miles away, and Omahans were either at the game or watching on television.

Admittedly, I am not a fan myself; I understand the desire to support local teams and take pride in their athletic accomplishments, but between my job running a research lab – and the ever-increasing package of obligations that goes with that – I simply do not have the time or interest to follow sports. But in Nebraska, to be unaware of the plight of the Cornhuskers would be like shunning society. It’s simply not done. So one should at least be aware of the team’s overall situation and prepared for pleasant discourse.

For this reason in recent years I have noted with concern some of the rather unfortunate behavior of Nebraska’s recently fired head football coach, Mr. Bo Pelini. Mr. Pelini has been taped a number of times lashing out at disappointed fans and sports writers, using expletives and profane language. It’s unclear to me the reason why the administration has been so tolerant about these very unsportsmanlike episodes – that certainly don’t reflect the intended integrity of the academic world, but I suspect that an overall winning record may have prevented the coach from being disciplined earlier.

In any case, Mr. Pelini was finally fired by the athletic director a few weeks ago, and despite earning a base salary of ~$3 million over the past 7-8 years and receiving a rather generous severance package which reportedly reaches $7.9 million (apparently dependent on whether he finds another high paying job over the next 51 months), he was shortly thereafter allegedly audiotaped cursing the Nebraska administration for his predicament.

A professional football player who played for Nebraska several years ago under Mr. Pelini noted recently:

On Bo Pelini’s impact on the program: “The focus of Nebraska football was no longer on the ‘N’ on the helmet or the kids but on the face of the coach spitting out f-bombs and swinging hats at referees like a toddler who left the store without a toy.”

He went on to say that:

I’m not sure what the win/loss ratio will be early on (with a new coach) but I can assure you I won’t feel like we are losing even when we are winning.”

And this sums up the essence of the problem; sports may be big business, and perhaps in the US, where one’s salary often denotes respect by the community at large, college sports will always rank higher than academics and science on the university scale. But I absolutely draw the line at having unsportsmanlike leaders of young college athletes – football coaches who curse fans and the administration. Regretfully, in the meantime I see that another college has already hired Mr. Pelini, in spite of his behavior. I would expect more of universities and academic institutions.


About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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