The Wagging Tail

I have blogged (endlessly some would say) about the tail that wags the dog in Division I athletics. I promised myself I would not go there again  (but I may have had my fingers crossed!).

A recent editorial in Sports Illustrated requires comment. It addresses the ripple effect of the decreasing use of cable TV on college athletics. Because fewer people are using cable since moving to digital technology which will allow them to watch those programs they want to watch and not pay for those they will never watch in their lifetime — or that of their children — the cable companies are hurting in the pocketbook 😢. The sports network giant ESPN, for example, has been seriously affected by the change in viewer preference. While a few years ago they could count on $8.00 per month from everyone who watched sports on their network  ESPN is now in 12 million fewer homes than it was in 2011. In a word, the number of viewers has dropped considerably and the income from cable has dropped accordingly. ESPN recently laid off 100 of its people in a move that had remaining folks on ESPN crying crocodile tears as they breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them — yet.😥

All of this impacts on college sports, which, as we know, is Big Business. As Sports Illustrated tells us:

“College athletics departments spent lavishly [in recent years because of the huge influx in cash from ESPN and other major TV networks], especially on football. At Texas new lockers were installed at a cost of $10,500 apiece and include individual 43 inch TV monitors instead of the traditional nameplates. Auburn added a $14 million video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s training complex included a bowling alley and nap room. Even position coaches were making six figures. . .”

Nick Saban, head football coach at Alabama, can be seen crying all the way to the bank as he gets ready to deposit some of his $11.1 million annual  salary; he worries that this trend spells the end of collegiate football as we have come to know and love it. Armageddon is at hand. This, of course, is nonsense as the universities will find ways to support their athletics programs — including raising student fees even higher — most of which (by the way) operate at a deficit. But they all see the big bucks the big guys make and hope that some of it will come their way. The problem will not go away just because figures must be juggled. It’s still a business and it is a HUGE business.

Oh, and speaking of big business, Jay Paterno, son of the infamous Penn State football coach and an assistant coach during the Sandusky era, was recently named to the Board of Trustees at that University. So much for cleaning house. The tail will continue to wag the dog. (But, seriously, a “nap room”??)

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The Toilet Bowl

Don’t get me wrong. I sit glued to the TV during the end-of-the-year orgy known as the Bowl Season. I have yet to learn how to watch more than one game at a time, however, try as I might. But, let’s get serious: 35 bowl games in about two weeks is enough to make the head spin and the stomach turn over even if one weren’t gorging himself on chips and warm beer. The bowl games are now appropriately named after their corporate sponsors  and I am waiting for the Kohler/American Standard/Eljer Toilet Bowl to be announced soon. That one I want to watch!

But the “Bowl Season” is a symptom of something terribly wrong. The big-time collegiate athletic picture in this country smacks of greed, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. I say that as a devoted game-watcher and former small-time collegiate coach. Seriously folks, what on earth does this have to do with educating young minds? Answer: nothing whatever; it’s about fielding a competitive team in basketball of football, keeping the alums happy and the undergrads diverted so they don’t realize that their money is being squandered on what their parents mistakenly think is a four-year degree that will give their kids upward mobility. Bollocks! It’s all about having fun and getting into a bowl game — even if your team is 6 and 6. It makes no difference. The point is to get on TV and see your school’s name on ESPN.There’s money to be made, so don’t let education get in the way. Money for some, at any rate. But it isn’t money that improves the quality of education.

All of which simply confirms Curtler’s Law, which states that the quality of education at a Division I school varies inversely with the success of the football program. And I must add that as a Northwestern alum I worry that they are winning football games of late. In the end it’s not about education: it’s about success on the field. If the money that is now pumped into Division I athletics, especially basketball and football, were spent on academic scholarships think of the dividends it would pay. But that’s not going to happen because the temptation to sell the university’s soul for big bucks has been too much for several hundred universities around the country, very few of whom will ever see the money roll in. Just think of poor little cousins trying to keep up — like South Dakota State University.

Things are already rotten in the state of academia all over the country, at every level.  In the typical American college or university, for example, curriculum is incoherent and priorities are skewed; the students themselves, pumped up by an unwarranted sense of entitlement and ill-prepared for study, are busy planning the weekend’s next party. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty are caught up in the publish-or-perish frenzy that directs their attention away from their students; classes are crowded, and students must sit in auditoriums while being taught by graduate assistants who have their own agendas and are therefore unwilling to push the students to do their best. These problems are compounded by the sports mania. What the large, Division I universities do not need is the distraction of big-time football and the diverting of monies and attention away from what is of central importance to any college or university. In the end, the student is the victim. But never mind. If we are lucky maybe next year we will make it to the Toilet Bowl.

Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

The Statue

You have probably heard they removed the statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State and put it in “a safe place” somewhere:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State University will remove the famed statue of Joe Paterno outside its football stadium, eliminating a key piece of the iconography surrounding the once-sainted football coach accused of burying child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant.

I must confess I have been of two minds on this issue for some time. I recently wrote in a blog that the statue should not be removed because its removal would be a falsification of events: it is a rewriting of history. Like it or not, Joe Paterno spent the best part of his life at Penn State and had a tremendous impact on countless lives –both positive and, as we now know, negative. His football teams were a model for the rest of the country, or so it seemed. But in light of recent events and the pivotal role Paterno played in the fourteen-year cover up of his assistant coach’s attacks on young boys, I now think the President of the University is making the correct decision.

I was persuaded by an outstanding editorial in a recent issue (July 23, 2012) of Sports Illustrated that reminded me of something I said in print a number of years ago: the purpose of a university is not to promote football (or sports in general) it is to educate young people. As I said in an article in The Montana Professor: The tail wags the dog at the Division I level. Sports play a disproportionately large role in the university in our day. Perhaps this was a wake-up call to restore instruction to its proper place at the center of the university. In the case of Penn State and its football program, the editors of Sports Illustrated put it very well:

Why not instead [of cancelling the football program] have Penn Staters create the program they always claimed to have? Football is supposed to enhance the academic experience at Penn State as part of Paterno’s Grand Experiment. The school can stop selling the idea and implement it. Use football for a more concrete cause: Profits from the coming season could be diverted to create a facility to study and destigmatize child sex abuse.

I had suggested in my earlier blog a monument to the children who suffered at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, but this is an even better idea: a living reminder of the atrocities that man committed on that campus in memory of the young boys who were the victims. And a program such as the one mentioned here could do immeasurable good in the face of the many terrible events that occurred repeatedly in the last fourteen years on that campus.

Football should never have been allowed to take the place of honor it took at Penn State. No coach should have been allowed to have the power and influence that Joe Paterno had in State College. But as horrendous as this scandal was, we all know this is just the tip of the iceberg. So much money is involved in NCAA Division I football that corruption is rampant on college campuses all across the country as football is given pride of place and education is forced to take a back seat. Let me give you a tiny example of the kind of disproportionate place football has on a college campus, in this case a small university campus involving a small football program with little or no money at stake.

When I was named men’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island many years ago I was approached within days by an assistant football coach who informed me that they would be sending their players to my classes from then on so I could “take care of them.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared dumbly and smiled. These memories percolated recently when I read the comments made by the janitors who witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a young boy and were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. In my case, the issue died, fortunately, as I left the university soon thereafter. But I felt the kind of pressure any young person would feel in a large institution when his job is in jeopardy. One can imagine how the faculty feel at a large university where the football coach is king and members of his team are the privileged few. The tail does indeed wag the dog.

It makes sense to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the Penn State Campus. But  it also makes sense not to deify the football coach on other campuses across the country and not to allow the football program to be the focus of what is going on at that university. We have not heard the last about the scandal at Penn State. As I write this the NCAA is preparing to levy strict penalties against this particular university, to make an example of it as it were. But there are potential scandals aplenty “out there” on other campuses and levying penalties and removing statues — while entirely appropriate — are hardly more than small steps toward restoring the proper order of things at our universities.

Fresh Air

Let’s face it, the air around NCAA Division I football stinks. There have been so many examples of corruption and uncontrolled avarice in that arena of late with weak administrators flailing around trying to make excuses for the “scholar athletes” and “great men” who play and coach college football that we have simply stopped listening. The latest scandal involving Bobby Petrino at Arkansas would seem to be nothing more than the latest chapter in a book that gives off such a strong odor. But not so it would appear. As reported with approval recently, the A.D. in this case, Jeff Long, actually took the high ground and sounded like a man who has his priorities in the right order.

Yes, winning is important. Yes, money is on the line. And let’s not fail to mention that Long took a risk in hiring Petrino in the first place. It’s not like the guy came with an unblemished reputation. But by squashing Petrino’s career at Arkansas on Tuesday night, Long reminded us the university is there to raise standards, not ignore them. The university is there for teenagers who are living away from home for the first time and placing their trust in a virtual stranger to make them better.

Indeed. It’s not popular to play the in loco parentis card these days as kids like to think they know what’s what and are clearly deluded about their own maturity and good sense. The notion that the university has a paternal relationship with the students is anathema to today’s millennial generation. But it sounds right in this news article. The university is a place where young people grow up and where, above all else, they learn how to use their minds, thereby becoming “better.” Semi-professional sports really have no place in the academy as Robert Hutchins insisted long ago when he cut sports altogether at the University of Chicago. I would argue that this was a bit extreme, but then I coached intercollegiate tennis for sixteen years and am somewhat biased. So far as I know Hutchins never coached a sport. But I do think that Division I football and basketball have become the tail that wags the dog, as I have said in print, and stands like Jeff Long’s are far too rare — indeed unheard of.

Given that Arkansas is not only a Division I football program, but also a pre-season pick to be one of the top five teams in the country next year, there is a helluva lot of money on the table. It took great courage for Long to stand up for principles, and he will no doubt be pilloried by the boosters and alumni who see this move as one guaranteed to bring the team down in the ratings. But this is precisely a major part of the problem: the boosters and alumni have far too much influence on athletics programs around the country and by extension on the academic programs that suffer as a consequence. It is sad commentary on contemporary “higher” education that so few administrators have the courage to stand up against these bozos.

I saw this first hand in the small, public university where I taught for thirty-seven years. An interim president suggested shifting the athletics program at the school from NCAA II status to NCAA III status and taking the “scholarship” money and actually using it for academic scholarships, rather than for wannabe athletes in a struggling athletics program. Word got out, and the president was forced by angry boosters and alumni to leave things as they were (and are) for fear of damaging the “quality” of the athletics program in the university. With the exception of women’s volleyball, the program continues to struggle — including a losing record in football against Division III teams in Wisconsin. You gotta love the irony!

In any event, Long’s stand is a breath of fresh air in the world of semi-professional football (let’s call a spade a spade. The players are even talking about forming a union). It is remarkable, however, that we make a fuss over a man doing the right thing for a change. It should be a matter of course, especially at an institution of higher education. But it’s not, so here’s a tip of the hat to Jeff Long. Let’s hope it’s the start of a new trend.

Stereotyping

Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser like to shout at one another on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” At one point in a recent show, Wilbon paused and glared at the camera and said in short, clipped tones: This is not a story and news programs should not be talking about it — or words to that effect. He was talking about the fact that L.S.U. cornerback Mo Claiborne reportedly scored 4 on the Wonderlic test (when the average football player usually gets 20). The Wonderlic is an IQ test they give to prospective NFL players to see if they are smart enough to run into one another at high speeds (I would think a low score is preferable). There is considerable discussion about whether or not prospects knowing who was buried in Grant’s tomb or whether 6 or 16 is the larger number is relevant information for someone who plans to spend his life running into another man twice his size. Probably not. There is good evidence, in fact, that the test is totally irrelevant. Yet the NFL requires it.

In any event, Claiborne apparently did not score very high and Wilbon was outraged that this should be mentioned on sports programs (like his own, I presume). He called it “stereotyping,” and wanted it to stop immediately, if not sooner! But let’s consider this a moment. How is it stereotyping to report that an athlete scored low in a test that is of doubtful relevance? To  begin with, most of the stories I read were quite sympathetic about the young man’s low scores and made excuses for his “learning disability” that has been known for some time. But even if the stories weren’t sympathetic, how does reporting this man’s score constitute “stereotyping”?

It is generally known that football players at the Division I level have a very low graduation rate and tend to take what others refer to as “cake” courses with majors in such things as “General Education.” Some of these players are black, others are white. But Wilbon’s outrage seems based on his assumption that people are stereotyping the black athlete. If anything, they are stereotyping the football player. But I would argue that it isn’t stereotyping anyway: it’s simply a generalization that happens to be based on fairly sound evidence that football players, by and large, are not stellar scholars (to put it as kindly as possible). In fact, athletes in Division I programs generally are not stellar scholars — including those in other sports such as basketball and hockey.

Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Division I sports is a sham and should be cleaned up by simply paying the athletes in “revenue” sports a living wage — as semi-professional athletes. The athletes should not be required to attend classes. If they want to get an education they can pay for it out of their earnings. This would have the added benefit of blackening some of the college budgets that are operating in the red these days. In any event, I dare say there will be rather few athletes who choose to go this route! Most will play in the hope that they get drafted into the big leagues.

The notion that the people involved in athletics at the highest levels in Division I are student/athletes is at best dishonest and at worst a bald-faced lie — for the most part. Clearly there are exceptions. There is the occasional Rhodes Scholar or pre-med student. But these are the exceptions and they usually draw a great deal of attention precisely because they are so rare. The evidence is compelling that a great many of these athletes fail to make the pros and fall by the wayside during their four years (one year for many basketball players). Very few graduate with high academic honors.

In any event, those who point out that Mo Claiborne got low scores on a silly test are not stereotyping. They are generalizing, which is not the same. A generalization is based on factual evidence, whereas a stereotype is a manufactured image involving exaggeration, even caricature, of a type of person who is then singled out for ridicule — like the “typical” college student who spends all of his time partying or the penny-pinching Scotsman. Shylock is a stereotype, as are Ole and Lena. Such creatures may exist, but they are certainly not typical. Claiborne is not a stereotype. But he is a football player and as a rule football players (black and white) are not destined to score high on written tests that probe their general knowledge (20 is a low average when compared with other professionals who take the same test). But it matters not as the man will almost certainly be a high draft pick — even with a low Wonderlic score.

Polishing Joe’s Image

Joe Paterno’s death was a sad business. Sad because he was unable to win the fight against cancer, but also because he made a mistake that will certainly tarnish his image evermore. A friend of mine called his life and death an “American tragedy,” tragic because he brought his spiritual suffering upon himself and American because we  place our sports heroes on a pedestal from which they have so far to fall. And we also endow them with a sense of entitlement that is seldom deserved. But there is more to ponder here. In the wake of Joe Paterno’s death we are once again reminded of the growing tendency in this culture not only to turn ordinary folks into tin gods but also to shirk our responsibility.

To be sure, there were things about Paterno that were admirable, and his success as a coach and a supporter of Penn State University are well recorded. He deserves praise for his contributions to the world in which he lived. But our tendency to create a larger-then-life figure out of a man who was clearly flawed — like the rest of us — is somewhat distressing. ESPN spent the day of the man’s death polishing his image so bright that it blinds us to the man’s flaws: the man could do no wrong. This is a kind of dishonesty that flies in the face of one of the few values our culture is proud of embracing. Further, the attempt by some of his supporters to place blame on the Board of Governors at Penn State for firing Paterno after his refusal to take action against Sandusky in the recent scandal that rocked the university and the college world, or to blame the “media” for covering the scandal and throwing mud on Paterno’s image — whether or not is was well deserved — is disquieting.

In the end, Paterno looked the other way as one of his favorite coaches abused a child. After all is said and done, that fact remains a part of the man’s legacy. He himself was apparently willing to accept responsibility for his action — or lack of action. After all, the religion he practiced recognizes sins of omission as well as sins of commission. But a number of his supporters want to cast the blame on the world that responded to that wrong as though Joe Paterno himself was blameless, despite the immense power he had at Penn State and his knowledge of what was going on in his own locker room. Such a deed needs to be uncovered and we need to learn from it.

The actions of the Board in firing Paterno were entirely appropriate, and the media’s attention to the actions of Sandusky and the surrounding scandal, was also appropriate — though, as usual, the media tend to exaggerate and are given to hype. We need to learn how to place both blame and credit where they belong. And despite the fact that Joe Paterno did many remarkable things during his lifetime, he was also to blame in the Sandusky case, as he was willing to admit. “I should have done more,” might well have been his dying words.

But the tendency of Paterno’s supporters to find fault with everyone but Paterno himself is our culture’s tendency as well. We look elsewhere when the blame for our own mistakes lies with us and no one else. It would seem that this is one feature of a culture that refuses to grow up. We cling to youth as though, next to unlimited wealth, it is the only thing worth having, and continue to act like adolescents well into our 60s and 70s. We really are a culture of spoiled children who are used to having things our way and don’t know how to behave when things go wrong. Like the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we immediately look elsewhere to see where we can place the blame. As I say, Paterno was apparently able to accept responsibility for his failure to speak out. Perhaps we should take a page from his book and accept the fact that we are ordinary folks who make mistakes and we need to learn how to accept the responsibility that goes with the freedom we like to brag about. Now that would be a legacy Paterno could be proud of!

Go Figure

In the recent issue of Sports Illustrated in a section they call “Go Figure,” we find the following:

“$240,000 [is the] amount paid by a Wall Street businessman for a 70 foot RV — stocked with prime beef, lobster, and caviar, and staffed with two waitresses, a driver and a chef — to transport him and five other fans 20 hours from New York to Sunday’s Giants-Packers game.”

If the economy were booming this would be hard to fathom; in this economy it is positively obscene. It really doesn’t warrant further comment. But it is certainly worth pondering.

And speaking of obscenities, the same issue contains an editorial that suggests a plan to put some of the huge amounts of money generated by college football to good use. It stops short of the notion that the athletes who generate the money should themselves be paid (as I have proposed elsewhere), but suggests instead that the money be taken away from the “coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, and bowl officials” and doled out to the “destitute communities from which so many of their leading performers come.”  It mentions, almost in passing, that the average football coach at a BCS school today makes $2.1 million. Not a bad day’s pay!

The plan actually comes from Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart who himself recently signed a contract with that university for eight years at $9.6 million, also not a bad day’s pay. As it happens, Smart is wiling to put his money where his mouth is and has given of his time and money to the Richmond area where the university is located. He envisions a tithe system whereby money would be made available for academic scholarships “or a foundation to shore up school districts imperiled by budget cuts.”

It’s an intriguing notion and helps to draw attention the the rotting state the colleges and universities are in that take in huge amounts of money from athletes who now complain they can hardly get by on the amount given them in the form of athletic “scholarships.” In the face of the fact that the NCAA recently met and simply sidestepped the athletes’ request for some sort of assistance, one must suppose that Smart’s suggestion will fall by the wayside.

In addition to tithing, the editorial also endorses a plan to have top-tier NCAA schools  reduce the number of football “scholarships,” cut spending on non-revenue sports, and institute a NCAA football playoff — an idea that’s been “out there” for years and is discussed and dismissed summarily by the football conferences who see it as a reduction in their profits. And there’s the rub: any plan, no matter how sensible, will not fly because it will take money away from those making huge profits from college football and basketball. As I say, it’s obscene, especially since these are supposed to be educational institutions.

Our True Religion

Brace yourselves! Here it comes again: The Super Bowl, once again reminding us what we truly worship in this country. It isn’t football, per se, or even this particular football game, which is merely a pageant. Rather, it is the Almighty Dollar that pulls the strings behind the pageants, professional and collegiate — and, increasingly, high school. Like any true religion, professional sports provides us with a deity, the Almighty Dollar, together with a panoply of saints in the form of the athletes themselves — who disappoint us from time to time, but we worship them just the same. And it’s not a once-a-week thing for an hour, it fills every nook and cranny of our empty lives, giving us something to talk about over coffee or beer during the week, including fantasy games we can play to keep us attuned to what is going on daily.

TV is itself a constant reminder of what really matters to us — not only in form of the games we watch, but also the inspirational shows, like “Fox News” that tells us 24/7 that money is what counts. So when we tire of talking with one another about last weekend’s game, we can commiserate with each other about the sad state of the economy, vowing to vote out the rascals who are taking money out of our pockets. Again, the Almighty Dollar reigns supreme. Our true religion fills our lives the way Christianity filled the lives of the poor Europeans during the middle ages when cathedrals were being built and church was attended every day — sometimes twice a day — by all and sundry. Religion provided the main focus of nearly every life and there were no unbelievers. This still appears to be the case; only the religion has changed.

To focus for a moment on one aspect of our true religion, the game of football itself is great fun to watch and the athleticism of the participants is remarkable and at times unbelievable. But the game has taken on a life of its own and now possesses a power over us that is deeply disturbing. We watch captivated by the sheer brute force exhibited on the field or the TV set. This may indeed be a healthy release of sadistic impulses, as some have suggested. But it does show us at our worst at times as we glory in the violent spectacle that these professional, and semi-professional, athletes put on for us.

But behind it all lurks the specter of filthy lucre: money. Buckets filled with it in the form of TV revenue, profits from memorabilia sales, food sales in the second largest feeding frenzy of the year, the obscene salaries of the players — not to mention the profits garnered by the owners themselves — and the sale of the TV sponsors’ products through the clever ads that we look forward to each year at this time. We tend to get wrapped up in the event itself and forget that this spectacle is being set before us to divert attention away from the fact that what this country worships above all else if the Almighty Dollar. And this deity holds sway each year at this time in all its glory.

It’s not so much that this one game each year sweeps us up in its dazzle and glitz. That’s not a bad thing in itself. We need diversion at times, especially in times of economic woe. But the powers behind the spectacle are insatiable. They influence not only the professional games at all levels, but also the “amateur” games at the collegiate level, bringing about innumerable examples of shame and disgrace (witness Penn State of late, which is only the latest in an extended series of scandals that go back beyond memory). And now, thanks to TV networks like ESPN, the reach of the profit-grabbers is extending to the high schools where games are regularly televised, including “All-America” all-star games sponsored by the armed forces. And we are asked to watch as high school players make the decision which college to attend — an event that is staged to increase dramatic effect as the high school student picks up the hat of his chosen college, to his mother’s chagrin. All are designed to dull our awareness of what is really taking place, as Tocqueville noted in 1831: “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The Super Bowl brings in plenty!

In the end, the game will be played and discussed ad nauseam on TV for weeks and months to come. It will be enjoyed by millions here and abroad. It is well worth watching (yes, I will be watching). But it is also wise to remind ourselves from time to time what it’s all really about, namely, the Almighty Dollar. That is, truly, this country’s ultimate object of worship. The game is just a game.

The Toilet Bowl

Don’t get me wrong. I sit glued to the TV during the end-of-the-year debacle known as the Bowl Season. I have yet to learn how to watch more than one game at a time, however, try as I might. But, let’s get serious, 35 bowl games in about two weeks is enough to make the head spin and the stomach turn over. The bowl games are now named after their corporate sponsors — how appropriate — and I am waiting for the Kohler/American Standard/Eljer Toilet Bowl to be announced next year. That one I want to watch!

But the “Bowl Season” is just a symptom of something terribly wrong. The collegiate athletic picture in this country smacks of greed, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. I say that as a devoted game-watcher. But, seriously folks, what on earth does this have to do with educating young minds? Apparently it is not about that at all; it’s about fielding a competitive team in basketball of football, keeping the alums happy and the undergrads diverted so they don’t realize that their money is being squandered on what parents mistakenly think is a four-year degree that will give their kids upward mobility. Fiddlesticks! It’s all about having fun and getting into a bowl game — even if your team is 6 and 6, it makes no difference. The point is to get on TV and see your school’s name in lights.There’s money to be made, so don’t let education get in the way. Money for some, at any rate. But it isn’t money that improves the quality of education.

All of which simply confirms Curtler’s Law, which states that the quality of education at a Division I school varies inversely with the success of the football program. And I must add that as  Northwestern alum I worry that they are winning football games recently. It’s not about education: it’s about success on the field. If the money that is now pumped into Division I athletics, especially basketball and football, were spent on academic scholarships, think of the dividends it would pay. But that’s not going to happen, because the temptation to sell the university’s soul for publicity and wealth has been too much for several hundred universities around the country, very few of whom will ever see the money roll in. Just think of poor little cousins trying to keep up — like South Dakota State University.

Things are already rotten in the state of academia all over the country, at every level. But at the Division I level the problem is compounded by this sports mania. At every level, curriculum is incoherent and priorities are skewed and the students themselves,  ill-prepared for study, are busy planning the weekend’s next party. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty are caught up in the publish-or-perish frenzy that directs their attention away from their students; classes are crowded, and students must sit in auditoriums while being taught by graduate assistants who have their own agendas and are therefore unwilling to push the students to do their best. What the large, Division I universities do not need is the distraction of big-time football and the diverting of monies and attention away from what is of central importance to any college or university. In the end, the student is the victim. But never mind. If we are lucky maybe next year we will make it to the Toilet Bowl.