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Columbia Business Monthly

The Tiger Needs to Run

By Marty Flynn

The greatest sports stories are rarely told. They are played out in quiet victories far removed from the gaze of fame. From the contender to the champion and every role in between, it is human character that shapes a sport, and weaves the fabric of legend, folklore and myth, that the enterprise of sports has so lucratively marketed down the years. The true value of sport has always been its accessibility; the many doors of entry afforded, no matter the station in life. Outcomes and rewards separate individual competitors, but the contest honors all who join the chase.  

However, in a modern world that deifies athletes and appraises sports teams as blue-chip stocks, I fear we are losing the welcoming nature of sports, this playground of opportunity whose broad reach of victory sets no restrictions on what people should seek to accomplish, and no limitations on what they can achieve. 

This discourse was prompted by the recent decision of college sports juggernaut Clemson University to discontinue its storied men’s track and cross-country programs. As an alumnus of these programs and the grateful beneficiary of an athletics scholarship for my participation, I have been contemplating this disappointing news in the larger context of how we have come to value sports today. How did we get to this point where the wallet owns the heart of competition?

Humans were born to compete. I have no doubt that Neanderthals, when not hunting or fighting, flung spears as javelins in acts of play, heaved rocks to see them move, and scrapped with tribal members just to keep their raw skills honed. For later men of agrarian societies whose bodies were their tools of work, exercises of running, jumping, or throwing were sideline distractions from the heavy lifting of life. The emergence of the industrial age, while requiring long arduous hours of toiling in a factory, provided a more predictable and secure life, and a structured environment for the introduction of more organized versions of physical contests. Here in South Carolina, the epicenter of textile manufacturing, baseball and basketball leagues not only provided a recreational outlet for mill workers known as operatives, but also rallied the community behind the home team as mill village rivalries heated up. Gifted athletes like Shoeless Joe Jackson moved from the factory floor to the playing field, and he played to his strengths as an early legend of baseball league prowess. 

Sporting contests migrated from the field to the stadium, from the road to the track, from the street to the ring. Competition acquired a clock, a bell, a scoreboard or some other measure of win-loss activity. Athletic achievement was now on record, and had transitioned from a spontaneous act of play among individuals unencumbered by outcomes to an entertainment spectacle to be cheered, booed and gambled on. We had officially entered the era of sports performance, and these human exhibitions of athletic skill engendered a more enthusiastic fan enabled with greater resources of time and money. As we morphed into a nation of spectators eager to pay the price of admission, wear our team colors and channel the game into our households, we were primed for the business of sports and its predilection for colossal stadiums, star power and lavish pay agreements.        

Sports consumption has become an obsessive and expensive habit, and sports entertainment has become a battle for resources. Success is formulated on the value components of talent acquisition, infrastructure and brand appeal. In professional sports, the statistics of how many millions a player makes, and how many billions a franchise is worth, seem to be the most important numbers in play. 

Colleges with the largest revenue streams reign at the top of their Power Five football conferences. The financial success of college football and basketball programs have enabled trickle down resources to support the non-revenue sports of baseball, track, golf, tennis, etc. Some of these non-revenue sports have now become  victims of the same success that created and nurtured them. As revenue sports thrived, non-revenue teams received a more generous allotment, resulting in better facilities, better coaching and access to better competition. The non-revenue label was discarded in favor of the more inclusive title of Olympic sports, and with increased funding came the expectations for increased success. This model works well in good times, but a significant revenue shortfall like that inflicted by the activity constraints of 2020 now calls this support into question and retracts the giving hand.

When the future of a program is determined on the basis of its cost of operation, an inherent bias towards the attainment of a more favorable balance sheet is inevitable. The fundamental problem with this approach is the fact that non-revenue sports are invited guests that could never afford a ticket to the grand ball of college sports, and everyone knew that. Greater investment by elite colleges in these sports was intended to achieve representation across all facets of competition. Subsidizing these programs was the price a college would willingly pay for diversity, parity and completeness in its athletic offerings, and also to dispel the notion that football and basketball were the only sports that mattered. But funding and parity are not good teammates, because money is the fuel that drives sports programs, and money is very discriminatory in its spending habits. So determining the future of non-revenue sports is really about reconciling the greater scale of purpose and goodwill.

A track is a circle of movement and a symbol of continuity. What I learned running on that track is that no two laps are the same, and no two competitors are alike. Athletic competition is a window that every college prospect looks through with different aspirations. One sees himself atop a podium, another sees a jersey with his name on it, and another sees his place among a band of brothers. This window of opportunity reminds us that sport by its natural design seeks to find a place for all.

So, I say to Clemson, in times of uncertainty, cut costs not programs, as you can never buy back tradition. Great institutions like Clemson University came to be through a ‘what if’ philosophy that embraces all possibilities. Leave the window of opportunity open for the stars of hope to light a path for young running tigers eager to join the chase of champions, in flight since 1953. If the race only belongs to the richest and the swiftest, then we have forsaken the essence of competition, which welcomes the walk-on to the same starting line that calls the star recruit, and teaches us the larger life lesson of staying in the game not for the glory, but for the story to unfold. 

The Tiger needs to run.

Marty Flynn is marketing program academic director at Greenville Technical College.



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