It’s late August on USC’s University Park campus. Must mean it’s time to get psyched up for Trojan excellence in the 2012 Summer Olympics, right?
That’s what the athletic department would have you think.
The east side of Heritage Hall was recently adorned with a smattering of banners celebrating the amazing feats of USC athletes in past Olympics and promoting their participation in London next year. This all raises tempting questions.
Where’s football? Where’s the visor? Where’s the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley?
The USC football team is just nine days away from its first game of the 2011 season, and based on the recent display, the athletic department appears to find it more prudent to devote the space to a competition taking place next year. It’s a dominant hint that the prestige of the program has taken a palpable hit.
It’s not to say that Trojan performance in the Olympics hasn’t been spectacular — it truly has. Since 1904, 393 USC athletes have won 122 gold medals, 76 silver medals and 60 bronze medals, the school announced Monday.
But historically, this is the time when the university tends to live and breathe pigskin. It’s August, and fans, students and alumni are supposed to be thinking about track and field? Suddenly, it would seem as if Barkley’s potential final season, the tailback position battle and the wealth of talented wide receivers don’t matter so much anymore.
After four losses in 2009, Pete Carroll’s departure, June 2010’s sanctions and five losses in 2010, the boon of notoriety for Trojan football is on the downswing, and the athletic department is fruitlessly trying to fill the void with uplifting distractions. If football is the meatloaf, the Olympics are the knockoff cornflakes USC is trying to fill it with. And I’m not full.
The signs of declining interest continue to penetrate. Starting last semester, the athletic department has inundated students with countless notices about signing up for season tickets, a process that historically required no sales pitch. In 2008, they sold out within weeks. In 2006, they had to add additional seating to the student section. It’s not often the football program becomes an annoyance to students, but these repeated cries for ticket purchases represented nothing more than the groveling of incredibly wealthy paupers.
Recently, it was announced in email that, for the first time, students will have the option to purchase two $30 guest passes for every home game (except UCLA) and have those guests join them in the student section. The exclusivity of the student section was a great quality of the historic Coliseum. Now some student from Palo Alto, Calif., can sneak his Stanford tree-hugging friends into the front row if they get there early enough.
But it’s not enough to say the trend is only a manifestation of the athletic department’s selling out. Even if it makes sense to deny football advertising space, there are still plenty of other teams clamoring for attendance that might be interested in that kind of promotion. Just take a second and look at the gate figures for USC basketball games last year. Or the general ignorance of the perennially superb water polo team, which has won three straight NCAA titles.
The Olympics are an event that cannot be ignored, with incomparable international attention and coverage. USC’s presence will be better known in the Olympics without the slightest bit of promotion than the majority of varsity sports.
The hanging of these banners is a sleight of hand to get the USC community to think happy thoughts, but the focus right now should not be on effectively burying the football program to get people to stop thinking about all its problems. Instead, the efforts should be driving a discussion about why the football team is still great even without the possibility, let alone promise, of a bowl game appearance.
There is something to be said for the renovations to the Coliseum, how associate head coach and architect of the famed Tampa-2 Monte Kiffin is going to get this year’s team to buy in to his defensive strategies after a nightmarish 2010 performance. Why should fans avert their eyes when everything doesn’t go exactly how it’s supposed to go? It’s almost as if USC wants to emphasize a sort of fair-weather fanaticism — just as long as they keep selling tickets, tickets and more tickets.
There was a time a shade more than a decade ago when football was in a similarly bad place. USC tried to keep people interested.
What happened after that?
“Suicide Blitz” runs Thursdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Danny at firstname.lastname@example.org.