At the conclusion of a program to celebrate his return to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan last week, the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. spoke about an initiative to heal the spirit of America. Specifically, Forbes, who was the senior minister at Riverside Church for 18 years, called for a great awakening.
“In the United States in recent years,” Forbes said, “we have tended to be so obsessed with the bottom line and material acquisition that we have not paid attention to the fact that we are not only temporal and biological creatures but spiritual creatures as well.”
He called for a renewed sense of teamwork across the nation, a widespread acknowledgment “that we cannot stand alone; that we are part of what Dr. King called ‘the inescapable network of mutuality.’ ”
Forbes’s remarks resonated because I had discussed a similar issue earlier in the day with Michael Rao, the president of Virginia Commonwealth University; James M. Danko, the first-year president at Butler; and their bright young basketball coaches, V.C.U.’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens. The conversations focused on the fantastic success of their men’s basketball programs but also touched on a troubling evolution: college sports have become an integral part of an institution’s bottom line. In some places the institution is held hostage by a program — as well as a head coach — that has become law unto itself.
“It’s difficult for presidents to manage their athletic programs because they have become so financially significant, and they’ve taken on a kind of life of their own,” Danko said.
In Rao’s words, “The thing that the university must acknowledge is that intercollegiate athletics is now a very significant part of the landscape.”
The enterprise has become too significant. The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State and the disturbing disclosures at Syracuse reveal a dark side of sports with programs that became insulated cultures and communities more important than individuals, especially the accusers in those cases.
Could Butler and V.C.U. be part of the sort of awakening Forbes called for, or might the two institutions, intoxicated by success, be pulled into the morass of big-time college sports?
Bobby Fong, who left the presidency at Butler earlier this year to become the president at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., said he was confident that Butler would not fall into the trap.
“In some ways, athletics is like riding the back of a tiger,” he said. “As long as you’re on the back, it’s fine; if you’re near the teeth and the claws, you can get hurt very, very badly. I never want Butler to get that point. It’s something we avoided by being conscious that it could happen.”
Butler and V.C.U. invigorated the N.C.A.A. tournament last season as midmajor teams that reached the Final Four. Stevens, who took his team to the final for the second year in a row, reinforced his stature as a bright, thoughtful coach, and Smart impressed with his enthusiasm, charisma and ability to inspire.
The presence of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth went a long way, not so much in healing anything but in showing how teamwork — mutuality — could work to defeat teams with ostensibly better personnel.
Danko arrived at Butler in August from Villanova, where he was the dean of the business school. He said Butler and V.C.U. inspired hope. “They end up somehow playing beyond those moments in some ways that encapsulate what those campuses and those universities think,” he said. “It’s kind of like the little engine that could. They’re able to beat out the big programs or the big guys.’
Not quite the little engine. Butler had two players on the roster who are playing professionally this season: Matt Howard (in Greece) and Shelvin Mack (for the Washington Wizards). The year before that, Gordon Hayward helped lead Butler to its first Final Four before becoming a first-round N.B.A. draft pick.
The bridge for Stevens to cross is whether to use Butler’s newfound prestige to snare more recruits with high profiles. This is a high-risk, high-reward high-wire act. “Are we going to change the type of people we recruit? The answer is no,” he said. “You can recruit high-profile players, but it has to be the right kid.”
For Stevens, and probably Smart as well, the right kid is one more interested in the experience and the people than the exposure and facilities.
The success and the national adulation that accompany an impressive tournament run become intoxicating and can create an environment of expansive ambition. There was talk at Butler that perhaps it should leave the Horizon League and join a more prestigious league with greater exposure. Despite Butler’s upset victory over Purdue on Saturday, that talk has been toned down; with two N.B.A.-caliber players gone and the team off to a 5-6 start, reality sets in.
“The way that I’m motivated is not by how easy it is to recruit a prospect with regard to all of the things you can lay out in the way of facilities or conference,” Stevens said. “My motivation is being around the right kind of people at the right kind of place.”
Last spring, Butler reached the Final Four for the second consecutive year and V.C.U. reached the Final Four for the first time. They met in a national semifinal; Butler won before losing to Connecticut in the title game. During the run through the tournament, Rao saw firsthand how a winning basketball program could transform a university and a city.
He recalled that the most gratifying moment last season was when the city of Richmond hosted a dual celebration for the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth for making the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“I have never ever felt so much excitement in the air as I felt and saw that day down by the river,” Rao said.
“The happiness you saw in people’s eyes and the pride, it was unbelievable.”
The joy isn’t free. Butler had already signed Stevens to a lucrative, long-term contract, and after the season, V.C.U. signed Smart to an eight-year contract that will pay him more than $1 million a year, up from a base salary of $325,000.
Rao said V.C.U. wanted to make a statement. “We do expect the program from this point going forward to always have a significantly higher level of performance,” he said.
“Not every program can be in the Final Four every single year, but we also don’t want people to feel like it was only one year and that was it.”
Despite escalating commercialization and the current headline-grabbing scandals like those at Miami and Ohio State, Danko maintains an unshakable faith in the ability of sports to heal. What is the source of that faith?
“If we would just go back to the fundamentals of athletics, it’s the development of the body, the heart and the soul and the mind,” he said. “As a university, we’re in the development business.
“There’s so much good that comes out of college athletics,” he added. “It’s the unfortunate reality of money that has tainted the whole thing. But when you look at sport at its fundamental core, the development aspect of athletics is so powerful.”
Powerful, yes, but potentially destructive without the wisdom and perspective of strong leaders willing to rein in the emperor coach and take on an athletic program that has become disconnected from university authority.
Butler and V.C.U. notwithstanding, institutions are engaged in a relentless tug of war with athletics. The recent spate of scandals makes the call for a great awakening in sports seem like a far-off, far-flung dream.