Last Friday's UW athletic board meeting began on a gleeful note. Athletic Director Barry Alvarez reported that the Big Ten conference would allow football games to be played after Thanksgiving next season, which means the Badgers will be able to fit in a bye week and the state's deer hunters will have a dilemma on their hands. The Finance Committee reported that the athletic department will pull in more than $70 million in 2007, a new record.
But then the meeting hit a snag. Jeremi Suri, an associate professor of history, turned up the heat on board chair Walter Dickey over a letter signed by Dickey, Alvarez and UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley on Nov. 2. The letter set forth the UW's position on the Big Ten Network, which would broadcast the following day's football game against Ohio State.
Suri felt Dickey's signature made it look like the whole athletic board stood behind the letter. In fact, the board had never even discussed many aspects of the deal, including the negative reaction of fans when slow-moving negotiations between the Big Ten Network and cable companies made the game unavailable to those without satellite TV.
Some board members sided with Suri, but others present were clearly perturbed by his dissident remarks. Suri, in an interview with Isthmus, takes it all in stride.
"There's a strong desire from some people to have the meeting be about nothing," says Suri with a chuckle. "It's actually gotten more contentious because a few of us feel like we've been banging our heads on the wall, pushing harder than we should to get these issues discussed. Not that we're succeeding. All we're doing now is getting discussion of whether we should discuss these issues."
Suri represents a growing discontent on campus toward the way the athletic department has been conducting itself. Some say it is behaving like a separate entity with few obligations to the larger university community, raising boatloads of money for itself while academics suffer.
"The university has always had interesting stuff going on, [and] sports has always been part of that," says political science professor Donald Downs, a serious sports fan who has attended football and basketball games throughout his career in Madison. "But I go to fewer games than I used to. Twenty-eight dollars to see exhibition basketball? You go to a football game, and you're just beleaguered with advertisements."
The athletic department, in marketing itself to alums, makes liberal use of UW imagery; but the signs around its new offices read "Wisconsin Athletics," with no mention of the university. The department's fund-raising is in high gear, with little public discussion about this increasing commercialization and separation.
"It's always presumed that whatever's in the interest of the athletic department is in the interest of the university," Suri says. "That's a really problematic attitude."
He adds that Alvarez "is not someone who likes to have to answer tough questions. He likes to run the department like a football team. That works to some extent, but it also means you get blindsided, and that has definitely happened with the Big Ten Network. No one was asking these hard questions. It didn't seem to me that it took a lot of brains to figure out that cable companies were going to resist this. They were unprepared for that."
Suri, who joined the athletic board in 2005, is a distinguished academic. He was recently named to a Smithsonian Institute list of young innovators. His new book, Henry Kissinger and the American Century, has been well received.
On the athletic board, he speaks for the larger university, and for the fans who felt that the athletic department has become too money-focused for its own good.
"This is not about trying to kill sports," says Suri, who attends home football and basketball games, often with his two kids. "It's about trying to make an athletic department that's responsive to the needs of the university and is stronger in the long run.
"My experience studying organizations is that when they stop asking tough questions, they might be better off in the short run, but in the long run they get themselves into a lot of trouble. I sometimes think in my worst moments that the athletic department now is where the Pentagon was at the beginning of the Afghanistan war. It looks really good right now, and you stop asking tough questions. Then things just blow up."