Dr. Ben Carrington is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading expert on the politics of sports. He is a member of the faculty-athletic department liaison committee for men’s athletics, called the Men’s Athletics Council. Before moving to Austin 11 years ago to teach at UT, Ben played semi-professional soccer in England. Here we discuss the recent removal of UT Athletic Director Steve Patterson and what it could mean for the future of the uneasy relationship between athletics and academics at the school. You can follow him @BenHCarrington.
Dave Zirin: Steve Patterson, a person who was once described to me by some of his detractors as invincible, is now gone. How did this happen?
Dr. Ben Carrington: We’re not too sure, it’s actually taken some of us by surprise. I think we have to go back to when he was appointed 22 months ago. When you have that tumultuous time at UT when Deloss Dodds was… well, with all these things, people are fired, but it’s always by mutual agreement. That’s the term that they use, which basically means, before we fire you, you’re going to resign, and we’ll give you a bit of money to go quietly.
So the big change, actually, was when DeLoss Dodds left after 32 years. The key thing that is significant as to how this has happened was that Patterson challenged the “old boys’ network” in Texas sports. When they decided then to make the next change, which was to fire—or to mutually agree that Mack Brown should step down, Patterson did it his way. He didn’t go to people like Red McCombs, who’s a very big figure in Texas sports and Texas politics. The University of Texas–Austin’s Business School is named after Red McCombs. One end of the [football] stadium is named after Red McCombs. Red McCombs normally gets to decide who’s going to be the head coach, and Patterson basically told him where to go.
So right from the beginning Patterson decided that he wanted to establish himself as separate from that old network, and those people weren’t happy. And what’s fascinating is that those people are now back. Yesterday’s press conference, when the new interim A.D. [Athletic Director] Mike Perrin was introduced, who was there? DeLoss Dodds. Who was the person that spoke to [UT President] Greg Fenves last week to let him know about the concerns of the coaches? Mack Brown. Mack is back. DeLoss is back. Behind the scenes, DeLoss and Perrin are long-term friends. Their friendship goes back 30, 40 years or so. So part of the story, really, as much as we want to say it was about coaches being unhappy and faculty being unhappy, it was the old power of the old boys’ network of Texas that Steve Patterson thought that he could usurp. And they’ve come back and told him, “No, we still run things in Texas.”
Why are so many progressive academic community glad that Patterson’s gone? I know it’s not because they love the old boys’ network.
Patterson hyper-commercialized every aspect of the athletics department. He pursued a ruthless revenue-generating and profit-maximizing agenda and in doing so, he sidelined things like the academic interests of student-athletes, in my view. He sidelined and had no interest in trying to placate the wishes of faculty.
One of the things DeLoss Dodds was very good at was, he was a politician. He was a schmoozer. He would let you know that you were the greatest. As an example, there was a contentious meeting we had when DeLoss was in charge, and halfway through it, DeLoss came over to me and he put his arm around me and he said that he’d just been talking to Bill Powers, then president, the week before and they both agreed that I was a great faculty member. And the thing about it was that I actually believed DeLoss for a moment. I actually believed that DeLoss and the president would talk about me and that I was a great faculty member. DeLoss knew how to handle faculty and to smooth over some of the contentious issues.
Whereas when Patterson came in, he lacked those interpersonal skills. So this past year, for example, he doubled the price that faculty and staff pay for their tickets. He’s accused faculty of getting cheap tickets on the 50-yard line and reselling them on the secondary market for a profit. He had little time to smooth over the relationships with faculty. Basically, he rubbed people the wrong way. And we shouldn’t have been surprised. If he’s willing to sideline Red McCombs, he has no interest in trying to placate the interests of faculty and others on campus.
Explain the mind of Steve Patterson. Is it just a question of ego? That he wanted Red McCombs and the old boys’ network and the faculty to all know their place?
There’s definitely a Patterson paradox. If you look into his background, he was the GM of the Houston Rockets when he was 32 and he took over from his father, Ray Patterson, who’d been the long-term GM there for 20+ years. One of the interesting things and one of the stories that needs to be written, is the extent to which Steve wanted to establish himself as his own man, separate from his father’s shadow. Because all of the old boys’ network from Texas, were all friends with his father, Ray. So part of it, I think, was Steve’s desire to say, “I am my own man. I am not my father’s son.” And one way to do that, is in a sense, to kind of differentiate myself to say to the old boys’ network, “I stand apart from you.” It’s as if the young gun comes in and says, ‘All of your connections mean nothing to me, because there’s a new sheriff in town.’
Not that I quite feel sorry for him—I feel sorry for the hundreds of staff who’ve lost their jobs over the past few years to the cut-backs at the University of Texas who were earning $40,000, $50,000 a year and have been struggling since they lost their jobs. One of the stories that Patterson likes to tell was about when he took over the Portland Trail Blazers. He went in there with an agenda to cut costs [and] to increase revenue because that’s what he does. He is the embodiment of the neoliberal sports executive, where the only thing that has a value is the price that you can exchange for it on the market.
So he went into the Portland Trail Blazers, did an analysis, and came to the conclusion that they were over-staffed. All these people weren’t generating money. They were bureaucrats. The story he likes to tell is that he realized they needed to fire 90 people, that he needed to fire 90 people. There was pushback. People said, “No, you can’t fire 90 people, all these jobs are essential.” And he said he compromised, and in the end he fired 88. He tells this story himself, a story he likes to tell. It’s a sort of nod and a wink, that of course I’m willing to compromise. That was his agenda coming into UT. So actually, I think there’s a slight hypocrisy of the people that are now criticizing Patterson, because he simply revealed what many athletics departments do all of the time, except he didn’t do it with DeLoss’s suave and political nuance, which covers up some of the less seemly aspects of it. So in many ways, Patterson is like the Donald Trump of college athletics. All of the GOP who are complaining about Trump, they created Trump. He is the unvarnished version of what that kind of Republican politics is like.
In many ways, we should thank Patterson because he’s shown us what it means when you decide that you’re going to maximize revenues by taking the men’s basketball team to China to play a game in the middle of the academic semester, and then when they get back a week later, take them to the Bahamas for an invitational. The student-athletes missed two weeks of the semester, in the fall semester. That makes perfect logic if you are the Houston Rockets or the Oklahoma City Thunder, to play those games in China, because it’s a big market. It makes less sense if these are actually students first. So in many ways, I think that Patterson is getting blamed, but he actually embodies the contradictions of college sports right now.
In other words, Red McCombs wasn’t upset because students weren’t being put first, right?
Yes. He has supreme confidence in his own abilities. That’s the other thing about Patterson. As you may well know, we have two athletic directors at UT. Everyone talks about Steve being the athletics director. He’s not. He was the men’s athletic director. Chris Plonsky is actually the women’s AD. In these meetings, he’d often assume that he was the smartest guy in the room, and that’s problematic when most of the people in the room are faculty members with PhDs. Most of the time he wasn’t even the smartest athletics director in the room. That sense of self-confidence, he exuded all the time. And what it meant was that he—unlike when he was a GM—had to report to a billionaire owner, in this role at UT he had no one to report to. Everything that he wanted to do as a sports executive to increase revenue, he was able to do with no pushback.
The most progressive thing that most of us cheer that Steve Patterson did was hire Charlie Strong, the first black head coach at the University of Texas. Is Charlie Strong’s job now in jeopardy?
No, not in the short term. In fact, it’s probably helped him a bit because the new AD is highly unlikely to fire him. But that said, given that the “old boys” are back in town, don’t rule out the Mack Brown return. You heard it here first.
For the people like you, Ben, who are fighting the good fight to actually make [the University of] Texas a University first that happens to play sports, instead of a sports department where they happen to have classes, does the removal of Steve Patterson put more wind in your sails?
This is one of the most worrying moments because the danger is, with this kind of euphoria of Patterson being fired, that there’ll be a reversion back to the old system, and the old system was as problematic as what Patterson was trying to do, but in a different way. I actually think we should thank Patterson, because he exposed the kind of ruthless nature of what athletics is actually about. So the progressive position now, is not to naively and uncritically embrace the new AD, but to put pressure on President Fenves to say, “We need a different model. We have to move away from the old boys’ network and not the neoliberal structure that Patterson put into place, but something else.” There needs to be a third position which puts students first and makes sure the faculty have oversight of athletics because, at the moment, we don’t have that. That’s what we need if this whole enterprise is going to be truly committed to the education of students and making students really be students first and athletes second.