I don’t remember much about the first tour I took of Syracuse University in the summer before my senior year of high school. But, I do remember the Carrier Dome. At most universities, the athletic facilities are located on the edge of campus or on a separate campus, away from dormitories and academic buildings. But, Syracuse has a 50,000-seat domed stadium right in the heart of campus, a few steps from the quad. In many ways, my decision to attend Syracuse was sealed right then and there. I grew up in a family in which my mother was the only college graduate – and she went to a local college filled mostly with commuter students like her – and in a region that didn’t possess a strong affiliation with any college athletics program, so I was blazing a new trail. I wanted to attend a college that was prominent in basketball and football, a school that regularly appeared on ESPN and in the polls. Syracuse wasn’t the only college that offered such athletic prestige (and also had a great communications school, my other priority), but the commanding presence of the Carrier Dome made athletics seem that much more important there than at most other universities.
The Carrier Dome was a prominent part of my college experience, and not just because of the many basketball, football and lacrosse games I attended there. Sophomore year, I lived in a dormitory across the street from it. I passed it on my way to and from classes, frequently walking up and down the steps adjacent to the structure. My commencement was held there. I wanted the Carrier Dome to be a part of my college experience in every way, shape and form, just like I wanted big-time college athletics to be part of my experience and I my wish was granted on both counts. More than anything, the Carrier Dome’s omnipresence signaled Syracuse’s devotion and determination to be a major player in the major college sports – men’s basketball and football.
As a student, I saw the downside to attending a school at which athletics is a significant force. I shared a few classrooms with men’s basketball and football players who clearly weren’t college material academically – in some cases, I wondered if they were even high school material. I heard football players openly discuss using performance-enhancing drugs and ways to avoid drug-test detection. I was privy to an incident in which a basketball player broke the plate-glass window of a bar near campus with his fist, a transgression that required police intervention but, miraculously, the basketball player’s name was expunged from the police report made available to the public and the media. And yet, my awareness of these various issues didn’t stop me from going to games or from wanting to see the Syracuse Orangemen (since shortened to “Orange”) do whatever they needed to do to be competitive.
I realize I am part of the problem; I know my school’s athletics program isn’t “clean”, yet my support for them is unwavering. Over time, I came to realize there’s no such thing as a program that’s both successful and “clean” in major college athletics. For one, it’s nearly impossible not to do something that violates one of the thousands of rules in the NCAA rule book, which is about as thick as an unabridged dictionary; even the most astute university compliance officers have trouble grasping its every nuance, especially since many of the rules seem to contradict each other. Also, college coaches are paid to win games first and foremost; a coach can recruit nothing but good citizens and great students, but he will be fired if he isn’t successful on the field or court. So, you can’t blame a coach for doing what he can to win games and keep his job, even if it means looking the other way when violations occur or if it means cutting a few corners. Nowadays, major college athletics isn’t about walking a straight line but, rather, making sure you don’t get caught committing major violations. There are major, fundamental flaws in the system, but it’s the hand that’s been dealt.
College athletics is also about putting your program in a stable position that allows you to maximize your revenue. And, that’s what Syracuse is doing by moving – along with the University of Pittsburgh – from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The announcement of the move, which came last month, was met with surprise and, in some cases, anger. Syracuse is a founding member of the Big East, which began as a basketball-only conference in 1979. It was the success of the Big East – and the conference’s landmark television deal in the 1980s – that helped Syracuse basketball transition from a solid regional program into a national power. The Big East helped foster rivalries between Syracuse and other schools in the New England-New York-Washington D.C. corridor, like St. John’s University, Georgetown University and Villanova University. And now, Syracuse is leaving all of that?
I take a lot of pride in Syracuse being a part of the Big East. It’s a great conference that has been a perfect fit for my university for a long time. But, when I think about the move to the ACC, I think about my desire for Syracuse remain a major player in college athletics. And, going to the ACC gives them a better chance of staying in that upper echelon than continued membership in the Big East would have. All of the schools in the ACC sponsor both basketball and Division I-A football. The Big East has a two-tiered structure, with only half of the universities competing in the conference in football, leading to a schism and revenue gap between the football and non-football universities. I will miss many of the regional rivalries Syracuse has fostered in their three decades in the Big East. However, I’d rather my university be proactive and look toward the future rather than holding onto something simply because of memories that were created in a bygone era. Again, there are fundamental flaws in a system that would lead teams to turn their backs on years of tradition in order to gain more financial stability, but I don’t spend much time complaining about how things should be, instead choosing to deal with how things are. And I’m glad Syracuse shares my stance when it comes to this issue.
More than anything, Syracuse’s move to the ACC brings me back to the first time I laid eyes on the Carrier Dome. I want my university to continue to be in the discussion when people talk about major college athletics. I want to continue to beam with pride when I see Syracuse’s national ranking, or I see them on ESPN or see them involved in March Madness. I also want the other, non-revenue sports Syracuse sponsors to benefit from the money and prestige men’s basketball and football bring in so they, too, can be competitive nationally. I want future Syracuse students to experience the atmosphere of big-time men’s college basketball and college football like I did. Most importantly, I want to continue to be proud of my school and its accomplishments. Athletics are far from the only area in which Syracuse is accomplished, but it’s the most recognized and easiest to identify. I know college athletics – and Syracuse’s move to the ACC – are far from perfect. But, I’m excited about where Syracuse is headed. And I look forward to supporting my alma mater as it embarks on its latest journey.Follow @raford3