Friday October 24th, 2014

NORMAN, Okla. – As the football game kicks off, the library is empty. Well, not entirely. There are, by unofficial count, four employees and four students, one of whom naps on a couch. A security guard plays video games on a computer. Here, in one stretch of the University of Oklahoma campus, is an intersection of major college sports and higher education.

There’s Memorial Stadium, packed with more than 80,000 clad in crimson, the interlocked OU everywhere, from tents to bedazzled T-shirts to cowboy hats and boots. It has to be the loudest place in the state of Oklahoma last Saturday.

Then there’s Bizzell Memorial Library, a national historic landmark located near the stadium and named after the university’s fifth president, William Bennett Bizzell. It is possibly the quietest place in the Sooner State, where the silence is interrupted only by the roars of the crowd.

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For all the talk about student ath-el-etes and academic progress rates and NCAA amateurism, college football remains a $3 billion business. It is, as presidents like to say, the front porch of a university, the most visible part, a vehicle to boost donations and school spirit. But the library and the stadium are not always connected the way those presidents maintain. They’re different planets in the same solar system, separate and unequal, particularly on Saturdays, when the contrast is most obvious, when two worlds become one.

The wall clock says 11:50 a.m. Kansas State leads Oklahoma, 21-14. In the library, Aldon Whitehead cracks open a textbook for his genetics class. Page 445 deals with translocation events in chromosome pairing, specifically translocation events in homozygotes and heterozygotes.

Illustration by Darrow for Sports Illustrated

Whitehead is the only person in one corner of the ground floor. His table is covered: scone, half-eaten; coffee, half-empty; water bottle; thick textbook; laptop; class notes. He came to Oklahoma to major in pre-med and Russian, and he hopes to later become a surgeon, the same way that Trevor Knight came to Oklahoma to be a quarterback and play in the NFL. Whitehead’s parents are football fans. He is, after all, from Madison, Ala. “I’m not against football, per se,” he says. “I’m usually just too busy to go to games.”

That makes Whitehead an anomaly, not just at Oklahoma, a school that claims seven national championships, but at almost any Power 5 institution in the country. Whitehead is not surprised the library is empty. Most students have just finished midterms, and the Sooners are at home. Whitehead estimates that 10 percent of his fellow students ignore football. Maybe less. He realizes he’s the outlier, and he holds nothing against the masses and their football obsession. It’s just his classes: Understanding Music, 19th Century Topics of Russian literature, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Soviet Literature post-1917, Microbiology and Genetics. There’s a lot of them. They’re intense.

When pressed about football as the priority at research institutions, where coaches make more money and yield more influence than school presidents, he says, “I do think there’s a misplaced priority involved. “ ... There’s a gross amount of money spent on football, an ungodly amount of money put into sports. They should use some of that for scholarships. For students.”

The football preparations start early Saturday. The radio hosts set up near campus at 8 a.m. They sound apoplectic. “You lose one more game, it’s over,” one screams. “O-V-E-R. Season done! Cooked!” The Sooners, at that moment, are 5-1, ranked 11th in the nation.

A homecoming parade cuts through campus, up Elm Avenue, right on Boyd Street, with not one but two tropical floats decorated with fake palm trees and another float designed like an oil rig. The mascot zooms by on a skateboard, then tumbles. “It’s OK Boomer!” someone shouts.

There are coolers filled with beer and pumpkins gutted and stocked with liquor bottles. There’s a Sports Illustrated tailgate event, where the denizens can snag photographs with the legendary OU running back Billy Sims, the horse in front of the Sooner Schooner carriage and Tre Wilcox from the TV show “Top Chef.”

By 10:50 a.m., Boyd Street is almost empty. The pedicabs are parked. The scalpers grow more desperate to unload the remainder of their inventory. So does the gentleman hawking the “B----, I’m a Sooner” T-shirts.

The stragglers head toward the library, then most bank away from it toward the stadium. On their way, they pass a series of conflicting signs. One reads: the spirit of learning is a lasting frontier. Then: tailgate like a champion. Then: no alcoholic beverages allowed inside the library.

Fireworks explode inside the stadium, the usual pageantry of pre-game. No one in the library seems to notice. A handful of folks in OU jerseys come inside, and that seems odd, until they stop downstairs and leave right after. “Bathroom: bottom floor” one sign reads. “Go Sooners!” someone shouts as the door closes. No one in the library responds.

*****

There are a handful of studies that examine the impact football has on academic performance. One was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2011. It looked at the impact of football success on grade point averages at the University of Oregon from 1999 to 2007 and found that three wins in any one season decreased GPA's by 0.02. The study also surveyed thousands of students who, not surprisingly, reported that football success led to decreased study time and increased alcohol consumption and partying, although the results were higher for male students compared to females.

In the conclusion section of the report, researchers wrote that their results “support the concern that big-time sports are a threat to American higher education.” In another study by Duke University professor Charles Clotfelter, he tracked the number of articles viewed at 78 university libraries during the NCAA tournament over three years. When any one team secured victory in an upset or close game, the articles viewed at their university library fell by 19 percent the next day.

Inside Bizzell, especially on a Saturday, especially on a home football Saturday, the contrast is stark, as the roars of the crowd easily drown out the hum of the air conditioning and the occasional whisper of a librarian. There are no copiers running, no students shuffling among the stacks, no chairs squeaking on the linoleum floors. It’s so exuberant outside and so still within that it almost seems like a joke, a setup, and that at any moment a group of students will jump from behind a bookshelf and shout, “Surprise!”

More students enter the library as the afternoon wears on. The fourth quarter starts at 1:40 p.m., but while coaches diagram plays on the field across the lawn, Rebecca Coker and Nancy Nguyen diagram layers around the heart on a whiteboard in the library. They’re studying anatomy, and their schedule is not unlike the football team’s. They’re near the end of their preparation, making their final tweaks. Monday is their game day. An 8:30 a.m. test awaits.

They’re not football fans; in fact, they forgot about the game and spent part of the morning stuck in traffic. “I don’t even know who we’re playing,” Coker says. “I just don’t care.”

That said, they can’t escape the most popular sport on campus. Nguyen plays flag football. Both have been to games. They know that Knight is the team’s quarterback, that Bob Stoops is the coach. They also know their tuition increased in recent years. They suspect that the plan to add more seats to Memorial Stadium might have had something to do with that, no matter what the school officials said.

The stadium roars again, the crowd audible in the library. They don’t look up from their anatomy notes. They don’t check the score on their phones. They won’t know when the Sooners have an extra point blocked or when Oklahoma’s kicker misses a chip-shot field goal late in the game or when Kansas State claims a 31–30 upset that demolishes their school’s national title hopes.

On the second floor, the Great Reading Room is empty, a sliver of peace close enough to see the chaos. By Sunday evening, it will be filled. The high ceilings, the gothic architecture, the walls lined with shelves crammed with doctoral theses and framed pictures of university presidents, they give off a most librarian vibe.

From one end of the Great Reading Room, near the oversized leather chairs and the coffee table filled with books -- “The Schoolmaster of the 19th Century” and “Practice Crafts Series: Process Engraving” and “The Trial of Aaron Burr” -- the stadium rises in the distance, the upper deck crowded, every seat filled.

The library is a short walk and another world away. The game ends. The stands empty. The streets and the bars and the downtown restaurants fill. A handful of alumni stop by the library, husbands and wives and children in tow. They head downstairs, to the bathroom, then upstairs, to the exit.

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