Yesterday evening after arriving home from another day at the office, I pulled out my phone and settled on the couch for a few minutes of what my wife and I call “scrolling,” the kind of mindless perusing of social media timelines that my phone-addled generation often engages in a moment of downtime.
Amidst the daily horror show that is my Twitter timeline, I noticed a few tweets regarding LSU’s new Football Operations and Performance Nutrition Center — a stunning $28 million dollar renovation that features opulence that is typical among high-major D-1 athletics programs. The facility features a new locker room with space for each player that, according to The Advocate, “looks more like a first class pod on an airplane.” Each player literally has their own functional sleeping space, with convertible chair-beds.
Setting The Standard pic.twitter.com/d7QUJfKL6M— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) July 22, 2019
The tweets that I saw, however, were panning the facility — or perhaps more broadly, the culture that allows such facilities to be built in the first place. Here’s a small sample:
Meanwhile, across campus, I vacuum my faculty office with a Dust Devil I bought at Walmart. https://t.co/fsVSPhmsOO— Robert Mann (@RTMannJr) July 22, 2019
In a state ranked 48th in education. You hate to see it https://t.co/YGSJhBz2qa— i am (@krislynsd) July 22, 2019
Do these tweeters have a point? Perhaps. Showing off your glittering new facility, built mostly to appeal to a small group of 17- and 18-year-old kids, and to catering to football players who will go on to professional careers in spaces that are far inferior — all while other, more broadly used campus community spaces are in a state of disrepair — is a tough look.
Perhaps that’s why this particular facility seemed to touch a nerve. It’s not as if LSU is the only school unveiling fancy new athletics spaces. In fact each week AB Today highlights some of the latest new facilities, often with colleges and universities prominently featured.
But as with most conversations on Twitter, this one lacks nuance.
First, and perhaps most importantly: the new LSU facility was funded by private donations. The critical tweeters would have a much better argument if the facility were funded by dollars intended to serve the educational mission of the university — but it wasn’t. The professor who tweeted his criticism above seemed concede this point.
I've said this 100 times: I don't begrudge LSU athletics anything they have and that they've built or purchased with private dollars. I only wish the state treated what happens on the other side of campus as equally important to the school's success as football, baseball, etc.— Robert Mann (@RTMannJr) July 22, 2019
Additionally, at least in the case of LSU, the athletics program actually operates at a profit. According to The Advocate, the school’s financial report shows that the athletic department brought in $145 million in the 2017-18 season.
Finally, for good or ill, the fact remains that athletics are “the front porch” of most universities. It’s entirely fair to argue that academic programs should be what draws student interest. In practice, I think that many students decide which school to attend primarily based on academics. However, with more than 4,000 degree-granting academic institutions in the U.S., schools need ways in which to differentiate themselves and compete for the best students they can attract. Athletics is one effective way to do that.
Despite misconceptions about misplaced priorities, I don’t fault LSU or other collegiate athletics programs for funding facilities for their recruits and student-athletes — especially with private donations. The teams are important representatives for the school, and if their success warrants donor support, build them their sleep-pod lockers.