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Bitter Orange Kool-Aid: The Problem With the Longhorn Network

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Last Friday hundreds of students gathered in the Main Mall at the University of Texas and celebrated the kick-off of the Longhorn Network.

The first venture of its kind, the network is a joint effort between the University of Texas and ESPN to bring wall-to-wall coverage of all things Texas to television screens nationwide. That is, if they can convince cable providers to carry it.

To date, the Longhorn Network has yet to sign agreements with Direct TV, Time Warner or AT&T U-Verse, among many, many other providers.

But while detractors of the network, and there are many, relish in its troubles, whether it will sign on with most of these major providers isn't a matter of 'if' so much as 'when.'

Disney, the company that owns ESPN, isn't in the business of floundering investments, and in the $300 million Texas-based sports network they have made a big one.

Since the joint partnership between ESPN and the University of Texas was announced, many have cried foul. Texas' bitter rival, Texas A&M, has even made plans to leave the conference, a decision that was propelled by the announcement of the Longhorn Network and the supposed 'greed' it represents on the part of the University of Texas.

To be clear, one major athletic program accusing another of greed makes about as much sense as Sammy Sosa accusing Mark McGwire of using steroids.

The truth is, if Texas A&M had the following to start a $300 million partnership with anything, they'd probably go through with it.

As it stands, they're making plans to leave behind the Big XII for a potentially more lucrative TV contract in the SEC. In the process they will leave behind Texas schools that they have been playing against for generations such as Baylor and Texas Tech, who will likely be the biggest victims financially when the Aggies exit the conference. Thus, perhaps our friends in College Station would be best served to watch how they use the 'G' word.

No, the problem with the Longhorn Network isn't greed but rather how it represents the complete and final destruction of the notion of a 'student athlete.'

The University of Texas' athletic program is a largely tax-exempt entity. The reason for this is that athletics, it is reasoned, contribute to the educational goals of a university. According to an article written in the Austin American-Statesman in 2009, "In order to remain untaxed, the money earned from a university's businesses must be used 'in furtherance of' the school's educational mission, according to tax laws. The NCAA has for years argued that money spent on college athletics is money spent on education."

So with the creation of the Longhorn Network, the University of Texas is attempting to hawk the services of their student athletes in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars. None of this money will benefit the actual athletic talent propelling the network or recoup the taxpayers that are largely responsible for funding the University it self. And I'm not sure where in Texas' educational mission it touts the importance of making TV shows dealing with the Longhorns depth chart available to valued subscribers in New Hampshire.

But perhaps the money from this partnership with ESPN will greatly improve the fortunes of the academic departments at the University of Texas?

Fat chance.

In an email sent out to the University community in January announcing the terms of the deal, UT President William Powers Jr. wrote, "During the first five years of the contract, UT will receive about $10 million per year. For these five years, half of that income will be devoted to academic and faculty support. The remainder will support UT Athletics." For those doing the math, that's only $25 million out of the $300 million that has been guaranteed to support academics to date. So as of now only roughly eight percent of the deal is guaranteed to go towards supporting Texas' academic programs, which due to massive budget cuts implemented by Texas governor Rick Perry, are in dire financial straits. Eight percent is at best a crappy tip.

Meanwhile, the beloved non-profit, which of course is deemed such because it supports educational goals, will be infused with even more cash. This is despite the fact that it is already the most profitable department of it's kind in the country, raking in $65 million in profit in 2010 alone. So while Mack Brown is being paid roughly $5 million-a-year as a non-profit employee, while the College of Liberal Arts has taken on $3.5 million in permanent cuts from 2011-13.

If that doesn't leave some sort of bitter taste in your mouth, well, you've been drinking too much orange Kool-Aid.

Granted, the athletic department is self-sustaining financially, but if they truly support the same goals as their academic brethren, how can the University in good conscious give one dime of this money to a department that was $65 million in the black in 2010?

Unless of course, they don't truly share the same mission, in which case Mack Brown may want to give the IRS a call.

But on the topic of orange Kool-Aid, in aligning themselves with the University of Texas for such a lavish sum of money, ESPN has once again teetered the line between being a sports business and a legitimate journalistic entity. The words that their Ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, wrote in response to the network airing LeBron James' decision, ring true once more with ESPN's somewhat questionable decision of their own: "If the network wants to be considered the true worldwide leader in sports, it must accept the responsibility that comes with it. As the biggest player in the space, ESPN can establish and give credibility to a story. With that clout, of course, comes the obligation to cover each story not just with journalistic integrity but with appropriate weight -- or risk that very same credibility."

With the network investing such a large sum of money into a single university, there is a chance, for good reason, that ESPN will lose a great deal of its credibility when reporting Texas-related stories. And credibility is not something that can be bought back.

Quite simply, there are students and there are athletes.

As Longhorn Network cameras captured the feverish burnt orange faithful for the first-time last Friday evening, the University of Texas administration drew an indelible line in the sand between the two terms, and made it abundantly clear which side they stand on.

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