Joe Rexrode’s article is a pretty good summation of the various bits and pieces I’ve managed to gather about Vanderbilt’s view on athletics over the years, but the word that stood out to me in this piece, as used by a source of his, is the word “threat”.
I’ve never gathered in my own experiences with Vanderbilt that athletics was viewed in that light, at least not overtly. Behind? Of course. Ill-advised? Sure. But a threat? That goes from general malaise to more purposeful action.
But the more you look at the situation and the decisions that have been made over the years, the more you realize that, whether certain stakeholders are willing to say it or not, there is clearly a contingent that views it that way, and that contingent has a powerful voice.
Which is why I say this: Athletics is not a threat and if you view it that way then you do not have the best interests of the school at heart.
To be clear, I have no expectation that Vanderbilt will ever have an athletic department in the same vein as its SEC brethren, and frankly I don’t want them to. The tail doesn’t wag the dog at Vanderbilt, and that’s honestly what sets it apart. It’s brand is not based on athletics, but academics, and that is something I am very proud to be a part of, even if I’m about the dumbest person to ever graduate from the school.
But athletics does play a vital part in a school’s connection to its alumni. One needs only look at Tim Corbin’s Vandyboys to see that. One needs only look at Vanderbilt’s attendance during the James Franklin era. One needs only look at the Vanderbilt-Kentucky games from 08 - 12, where students were lined up all the way down to Hawkins Field to get tickets to go to see the battles of four year student-athletes vs. the one and dones. I sincerely doubt the university has seen that type of alumni engagement since. In those years, there was a plan and there was momentum, and there was glimpse of what Vanderbilt could be, with athletics not controlling the academics, but melding with it to create the ultimate collegiate experience. The best degree in the best city in the best conference in America.
Now, we’ve learned that an AD hire was scuttled over fundraising control issues, large scale thinking as to athletics by another was roundly rejected and in the end resulted in a force out, and the communications from the athletic department are no longer independent from the university, despite their objective excellence (see the Vandyboys social media). These moves can’t be interpreted any other way than as purposeful limitations of power in athletics.
And that brings me to the consequences of these actions: embarrassment of alumni and destruction of alumni engagement.
Vanderbilt’s student body and alumni are decidedly not local. My own friends are all over the map, and few of them reside in Nashville now. Ergo, they don’t have direct connections to the university except for engagement in their local alumni chapters. Athletics brings people together in a way that nothing else can. Like it or not, they have a spotlight in our society. How that spotlight is used matters. Right now it’s being used very poorly, and because there’s no other distractions, it’s right in focus.
Candace Storey Lee needs to be given the appropriate room to do her job and the administration, to an extent, needs to do something they don’t seem comfortable doing: get out of her way. She will have to raise money, she will have to invest that money into facilities, and she will have to find a way to get people to come to the games. As a Double Dore, she knows the inner workings better than anyone, and yes, she deserves time to implement action, even though we’ve spun our wheels for the past two years. Listen to her, give her what she needs, then back off. It’s not that complicated.
And if you think athletics is a threat to the university’s standing, then reconsider your position.