I admit it: I am a football junkie despite the fact, as many of you are all too aware, that I am a relentless critic of the way football has taken over our colleges and universities and helped turn them away from their true goals. I cannot turn away from the remarkable athleticism and beauty of sports played at the highest levels. This may be inconsistent, but I recall Emerson’s comment that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds” and I find solace in that thought. I will try to keep my mind open to the positives of college sports at the highest levels despite the fact that I know they thwart the true purpose of academia which is to help young minds grow and develop.
One of the arguments used to justify sports is that they help build character, which is true with certain qualifications. Sports are one of the few places left in this culture where young people learn how to learn from failure. They are no longer allowed to fail in school and we hope to protect them from failure in their daily lives as well. In sports, on the other hand, failure is inevitable and people do learn and grow from it. But this is true of sports even at the lowest intra-mural levels: it does not justify the millions of dollars and countless student hours wasted in training and watching sporting events at the highest levels from which very little is learned except by a handful of participants. Any doubts about the inversion of priorities on our NCAA Division I campuses was dispelled in my mind recently when the TV cameras at a major university trolled through a library during “the big game” where we found only three students pouring over their books. Thousands were outside in the stadium with painted faces shouting like escapees from the local insane asylum while three lonely students settled down to their studies.
But I could add the obscene salaries the coaches make which dwarf the salaries of any Nobel prize winners on campus. The most recent example is, of course, Jim Harbaugh at The University of Michigan, which is supposed to be a reputable institution of higher learning. But even his $5 million annual salary does not make him the highest paid college football coach in America. And we can add to those obscene salaries the thousands, and even millions of dollars college coaches make endorsing products from corporations like Nike and Under Armour. It boggles the mind.
But the fiction that football at the highest levels builds character, the one thin thread folks rely on to make the case for athletics at that level, can be doubted because of a brief incident during a recent Bowl game (there are now nearly 40 such games during the holidays) between Baylor University and the University of Michigan. (Yes, I was watching.) It is standard strategy in the closing minutes of close games that the winning team wants to “run the clock” while the losing team wants to stop it any way they can to regroup and come up with the “big play.” In this game Baylor was winning with less than two minutes to play. They had the ball and after a play one of their players remained on the ground in obvious pain. This is a tactic some coaches will use to stop the clock if they are losing, since the clock stops automatically for injured players, but in this case Baylor wanted the clock to keep running. The TV camera went close in on the frantic Baylor coach and his lips were easy to read as he shouted, the veins standing out on his neck, “GET UP GODDAMMIT!” His player was down and in pain, but the delay might cost them the game, and that was clearly the only thing the coach cared about. The coach who sets an example for his players. So much for building character. Remind me not to send my grandchildren to Baylor to play football. Oh yes, they are girls and one seldom, if ever, sees such things in women’s sports. Yet.