Gordon Gee is president of The Ohio State University, the nation’s third largest in terms of students and a research leader with a reported R&D budget of $828.5 million for 2010-2011. One might think he has better things to do than chastise the UW-Madison’s football coach.

But that’s precisely what Gee did recently in an interview with Ohio State’s student newspaper, The Lantern, during which he said Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema should “get a life” and quit fretting over whether or not Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer poached a prime Badgers recruit.

“We hired the best coach and we went out and got the best kids so get a life,” Gee said.

Given that Ohio State’s football team was banned from playing in a bowl game in 2012, the result of a probe by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, one might think silence on all things football would be a wise course for Gee. Not so. In the same interview, Gee referred to the NCAA investigation as a “year-long colonoscopy.”

Gee is respected among the small fraternity of university presidents and chancellors. In fact, he’s held more university presidencies (West Virginia, Colorado, Brown and Vanderbilt before Ohio State) than anyone else in U.S. history. He’s reportedly the highest paid public university president in the country and was ranked the nation’s best college president in 2009 by Time magazine.

So why is the same academic all-star who eliminated the athletic department at Vanderbilt in 2003, folding it into the Division of Student Life, getting drawn into a squabble among competing coaches? Answer: Big-time college athletics has become the tail that wags the dog.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a college football fan who bought season tickets at Wisconsin during an era when the Badgers won six games in three years. I also understand that participation in college sports is a pathway to higher education for kids who might otherwise never come near a classroom after high school. I teach one class at the UW-Madison, so I’ve learned that some of the best disciplined students are student-athletes. They learn how to manage their time.

The problem has become the near-obsession with college sports, especially top-tier football and basketball, among universities that are competing for students, alumni donations and public attention. It’s Money Ball on an amateur scale.  

Many people can recite the weekly NCAA rankings of the nation’s top 25 teams, but almost no one can tell you which American universities raise and spend the most when it comes to research. (For the record, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., is No. 1 year after year and Wisconsin has been a top five R&D school for the past 20 years.) Sure, knowing how much Ohio State spends on cancer research may not be as entertaining as the gridiron rivalry with Michigan, but guess which endeavor is most likely to save your life or the life of a loved one?

Ohio State coach Meyer most recently coached at the University of Florida, a Southeastern Conference school that produces football teams much like other teams in the SEC – big, fast and likely to stomp on their non-conference competition. In hiring Meyer, always known for his aggressive recruiting style, Ohio State was just trying to keep up with the NCAA Joneses – something Wisconsin would do, as well, if and when it had the chance.

The question is whether universities are evolving from places where students are also athletes to training grounds for quasi-professional athletes disconnected from learning. There could be lasting damage to higher education if American universities continue to allow the public to think performance on the football field or basketball court is more important than performance in the labs and classrooms.

Universities such as Wisconsin and Ohio State should be judged by what they contribute to the well-being of society, to the economy and to democracy. If college sports help spotlight those goals while entertaining and uniting people, so much the better. But if anyone needs to “get a life,” it’s those folks who occasionally lose sight of why higher education exists in the first place.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.