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A college president expresses optimism about sports

The letter came right out of the blue. "You sound cynical, but informed," the letter said, getting it half right. "I'm the President of the University of Utah and I may become cynical, but need to be informed. I also am committed to a healthy athletic program at this University.... Am I naive to think that in 1990 Television America it can be done without sacrificing an honest relationship to young people or to University standards?"

I wrote the president and, validating my cynic's credentials, said I doubted that such a miracle was possible in T.A. 1990, but that I'd love to stop by the next time I got near Salt Lake City. The president, whose name is Dr. Chase Peterson, said please, come on by. A few weeks ago, I took a comfortable seat in his office.

"Universities are not easily understood," he began. "They don't translate well into other parts of society. To paraphrase William James, they have to be experienced to be understood, and yet they prosper only if they're widely understood and appreciated by the wider communities they serve. Still, too many people think of universities as just the grade after high school. How do you get people to understand what intellectual freedom is and how they can buy a piece of it?

"Well, I believe that football—big-time sport—fits in there somewhere. The sense of ceremony and community that's inherent in sport can be of value. I don't mean mindlessly screaming 'We're Number 1!' I mean something like the fifth quarter at Wisconsin, where they don't have very good teams but where the band stays after the game and so does the crowd, and they all sing along. And I won't argue that the Ivy League is pure, but when you have 70,000 people at Harvard versus Yale and neither one of the teams can beat the Little Sisters of the Poor, well, there's something in that."

Peterson is a relatively rare bird in academia, having worked at small private and large public institutions. A Mormon, he grew up in Utah and then hied himself off to Harvard and the libertine East. He became a physician and practiced in Salt Lake, but left medicine after five years to return to Harvard, where he eventually became vice-president for alumni affairs and development. He then found his way back to Utah, to the university. He has been president there the last five years, and he characterized his school in general as "the best university in the region" and its athletic program in particular as "average." That seemed fair to me.

"This is a heterogeneously lumpy place," Peterson said. "A university has so many hooks. There's research, and there's a library, with a lot of books in it that some people don't like, and there are also symphonies and sororities and a football team."

You can't ask everyone to take all your hooks. "A man like Dr. Ray White may win a Nobel prize someday for his work here in genetics, but I know that won't mean as much to most people as if we had a winning football team. But, still, I believe that football can help genetics and genetics, football." Peterson smiled at himself. "You can see that I'm trying to argue myself into saying that big-time sport is honorable, and"—he shrugged—"I have."

He went on: "But you must find a proper playing field. If you lose all perspective, as Ohio State did, and fire the coach even after years of winning, then your playing field is unplayable. Likewise, you can't ask people to go along forever if you have Columbia-type results. I also acknowledge that there's a lot of hypocrisy in all this.

"But in the end, how can we overlook the principals? When you see a 220-pound kid crying after a game—and not just because he lost, but because of the experience—you're looking at a catharsis, an emotional exercise that's almost like a postepileptic fit. There's something wonderfully honest about that, something you don't necessarily see elsewhere in our society. What do we want at our university, a bunch of jellyfish floating all around? No, we want the boy or girl who puts a stick down in the ground, and stays here—whether he or she is a chemist or a violinist or a defensive back."

So, I said, you're committed to big-time—bigger-time—sports at Utah?

"Yes, I believe we can build strong and honest athletics programs that add to and don't detract from the primary purposes of this university," Peterson said.

And succeed without cheating?

"I think it's 80-20 we can," he replied baldly. "And if it's 20, if we can't succeed, well, I've convinced myself that it will have been worth the effort."

I rose to leave, perhaps just a little less cynical about Television America 1990. I told him I'd even go through the agate type every Sunday to see how the Utes did on the gridiron. He said he'd keep me posted on Dr. Ray White's progress in the laboratory.