What’s Best?


In a recent post I noted that the template for so many activities we humans engage in has been created by business. We have become a nation of shopkeepers governed by shopkeepers with tiny minds. I mentioned the health-care industry (note the noun) and education — which I have commented about endlessly, some might say. I should have mentioned sports, especially professional sports.

I noted repeatedly the increasing movement toward business in NCAA I sports, especially football and basketball. But I might also have noted the effects of huge amounts of money in professional sports. Because in both cases it is money that is indeed the root of the evil. I  recall a discussion I heard on ESPN recently among four men and one woman, who all agreed that the trend toward football players opting out of the meaningless Bowl Games at the end of the year is perfectly OK because these young men “must do what is best for them” — meaning, they must do whatever necessary in order to make as much money as possible in professional sports.

Now I have a habit of whistling into the wind, as some might have noted. Some will insist that I am blind to reality. But I will agree that young men should do what is best for them, and even agree that they would be wise to maximize their income in a sport that may well cripple them. But there is the fact, ignored by so many these days, that these young men do have a responsibility to their college teams and it is not clear that making the most money possible is indeed what is best for them. In any event, the trend started last year when a couple  of young men who knew they were to be high draft picks in the upcoming NFL draft refused to play in their team’s Bowl Games after the regular season ended. This year a player on the Ohio State football team chose to withdraw from the team in mid-season because he knows he will assuredly be a high draft pick and didn’t want to get hurt after returning to the team and therefore lower his chances of landing a big contract from some NFL team or other.

Coaches used to like to say, “There  is no ‘I’ in team.” But then a great many coaches jump ship whenever they get a better offer from another university and the players who sign on with them are often severely disappointed, even frustrated. They have learned to be suspicious and take promises at their face value — which value is becoming increasingly worthless. Now players can transfer from university to university and become immediately eligible to play on their new team, and, as I have noted, the really good ones feel free to quit if they think their professional futures are in jeopardy, given the violence of the game they play. To be sure there is a risk. There are millions of dollars involved. And that is the rub.

The trend toward opting out of the Bowl Games is one that the experts are convinced will grow as more and more players with potential to become highly paid professional players realize that by playing in what is in so many ways a meaningless game they would jeopardize their future wealth. All five talking heads I referred to above agree that this is coming, if it is not already here, and it is perfectly OK. They saw nothing whatever wrong with it. And this speaks volumes when it comes to understanding what is going on in our post-modern society. It is all about money. End of story.

But I will not end the story because not all things should be about money. Health care certainly should not. Education assuredly should not. And a young man or woman who plays for a collegiate sports team and accepts a full scholarship should pause before choosing to quit before their season ends — even if that season ends in a meaningless Bowl Game. Because let’s face it, all of the games are meaningless in the grand scheme of things; and the Bowl Games, as absurd as they are, are still a part of the football season and are prized by many who play the sport and are not good enough to expect a professional contract when they are finished.

In a word, there is a responsibility to the team here, a responsibility that is totally ignored because we have all become so inured to the parade of fools who sell their better selves for filthy lucre. It is not all about money. Sports are not and education and health care certainly are not. And yet the fact that we have allowed the business model to become so very prominent in our culture causes us to ignore the deeper levels of human behavior — such things as character, for example. And this seems to me to be a serious problem we might well consider as we casually dismiss the latest young man or woman who is concerned only about “what is best for them.”

 

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Opting Out

The latest in a long series of signs that college football is the tail that wags the academic dog is the decision of three star football players not to participate in this year’s Bowl Game Extravaganza.

The NCAA in its wisdom has instituted a playoff for the four teams deemed by a panel of experts to be the best four teams in the country. These four teams play in an elimination format with the winning team declared the National Champion. The attention of the television audience and sports enthusiasts around the world has shifted to these two games and away from the other Bowl Games — of which there are still countless numbers.

Accordingly, this year three of the star players on three of the teams that will play in the Bowl Games (but not in the National Championship playoff) have decided not to participate in the games because, presumably, they don’t want to get hurt and adversely affect their chances to garner a huge contract with an NFL team. Now, keep in mind, that at the “highest” levels of play in the NCAA Division I football players have always tended to regard their football careers as auditions for the NFL, many of them choosing to drop out of college after a year or two to play in the professional ranks. What does this have to do with education, you might ask?

The answer is simple: nothing whatever. But what it does as far as education is concerned is shed a light on the priorities at the “highest” levels of college football that reveals the lie that collegiate sports are all about scholar-athletes. It’s not. They all about high profits and entertainment for the masses that translate into wasted Saturdays and two weeks of non-stop Bowl Games in late December. (As I say this, I confess I do watch some of the games and I do love to watch stellar athletes in any and all sports because I have a sense of how hard it is to play that well in any sport. Still, there’s a rotten smell in the air.)

Any pretense that football is simply another “extra-curricular activity” at the college level — outside of Division III football where there are no athletic “scholarships” — is put to rest. It is clear from the three players who have decided to put themselves first and their teams last that they have received the message loud and clear: play for pay. College football is all about entertainment and huge profits for the various conferences in NCAA Division I football, and the players are all about themselves. There is an “I” in team, apparently. Put yourself first, make sure you don’t get hurt and ruin your chances of getting a large contract to play at “the next level.”

Many have pointed out — apparently as a kind of defense of college football — that such goings-on merely reflect the larger society as a whole. We shouldn’t put our focus on college football because those who play the game are merely products of the broader society in which they have been brought up. This is true, of course, but it is not so much a defense of college football as it is an indictment of our society as a whole. The message we are sending when players opt out of a Bowl Game or the teams cheat and risk scandals or coaches break their contract to sign with another school (for millions of dollars) is that one’s word means nothing. Honor and honesty are merely words. The team doesn’t matter. The individual is all that matters. I have even heard the talking heads who follow the sport closely defend the football players by saying “everybody does it.” In ethics this is a violation of basic principles, it is an expression of the false notion that two wrongs make a right. Just because others do it (and it is impossible to deny that others are indeed doing what they regard as best for themselves, regardless of the others around them) does not make it right.

The absence of those three star players form this year’s Bowl Game Extravaganza will not cause a ripple in the grand scheme of things. In itself it is trivial, but as a symptom of a larger problem, the applauding of unmitigated selfishness, it is certainly something to ponder.