Sports

The Pitch Is In, and It's Good

If you look hard enough, there are plenty of similarities between a car dealership and a strip club. For starters, both rely heavily on sex to sell. (If you've ever been to an auto show, the comparison becomes even clearer.) You'll probably find more pinkie rings per person in either business than among the general population. And -- there's no nice way to put this -- neither strip-club owners nor car salesmen are likely to make the top ten in a parental list of role models for their children.

Still, it's probably a safe bet that in a contest of moral superiority, a car salesman would come out slightly ahead of a porn man. Which makes it that much more unusual that Jefferson County School District R-1 could soon have a new library financed in part by titty-bar magnate Troy Lowrie, while not so long ago it thumbed its nose at a car dealership looking to help pay for the district's new athletic stadium.

Lowrie, you may recall, is the Denver owner of PT's and a handful of other strip clubs here and in a few other states ("The Daily Grind," April 13). He has offered 660,000 shares of a company of which he is partial owner to HOPE/Columbine, the private organization trying to raise money to build a new library at Columbine High School. The company does not own the strip clubs, but Lowrie was alerted to the cause by one of his exotic dancers, Angela Sanders, a daughter of Dave Sanders, the teacher who was killed in the rampage at the high school one year ago. Last week, the members of HOPE/Columbine voted to accept the donation.

It is important, of course, to acknowledge the difference between a new sports venue and a library to replace the one defiled by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. One needed to be built because a school district outgrew its facilities. The other is being replaced because the existing space was the scene of unimaginable horror. The new field will be a place to watch and celebrate what children can accomplish; the new library is to forget what children are capable of. In some ways, there simply is no comparison.

But there is one similarity worth examining: Both the new football field and the library are projects in which private -- i.e., non-taxpayer -- money was solicited to lay the bricks and pour the cement. Yet how each of the two Jefferson County parties went about finding -- and then deciding whether to keep -- the scratch says much about the shifting sands of whose money is morally acceptable for our kids and whose isn't.

Like it or not, private money in public schools is becoming more commonplace. Lately, some of the money has been trickling into classrooms and academic programs. Yet more often than not, the first choice for private and/or corporate sponsorships is athletics.

That's because, while the link between sponsorship money and what happens in a classroom is still being explored and tested, corporate loot is an old story in sports. It's hard to remember a time when race cars weren't moving billboards or when, even at publicly funded universities, a top coach was compensated only by his salary and not a whopping supplemental shoe contract. Locally, the University of Colorado also collects hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in exchange for sewing a prominent swoosh on every Buffs football jersey. The school's football coach, Gary Barnett, earns $150,000 in annual salary -- a figure that is $40,000 less than he gets from his Nike shoe deal every year.

Companies with something to sell are always looking to extend their reach to untapped (and younger) markets, so these days, sponsorship deals are becoming more frequent at the high-school level. The point of entry has been sports, for the simple reason that such deals are already familiar. It may make no difference in the mind of a high-school student, but to parents and boards of education, using corporate money for athletics in exchange for a sign above the end zone is somehow more palatable than using it to buy new books and hanging a Nike banner in the library.

Another reason for the marriage of high school sports and private money is that as cash gets tighter, public-school athletics are looked at as more expendable than they once were. The word "extracurricular" is beginning to take on a financial meaning it once didn't have. "The reality today is, you either get private money for a stadium, or you don't get a new stadium," says Christine Smith, who, as director of enterprise activities for Denver Public Schools, is charged with finding new sources of money to fill the widening cracks in the district's budget.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer

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