The talk these days on the sports shows — at least the ones I watch — is all about the NCAA rule that athletes in college may soon be allowed to get paid for the use of their image for promotional purposes. This follows the state of California which not long ago ruled that athletes in college should be allowed to be paid to play. Several other states have followed and the NCAA is in a panic that the whole thing will mushroom and they will lose their preeminent place at the center of collegiate sports — as they see it.

In any event, I wrote many years ago about the hypocrisy involved in intercollegiate athletics (at the Division I level) where it is clear that the vast majority of those who play football and men’s and women’s basketball (at least) are not in college to get an education but to prove themselves worthy of recruitment into the professional ranks. It’s a proving ground on which the vast majority falls down and is quickly forgotten, sad to say.

In any event, the rationale I now hear for paying these kids to play in college is that they now receive “nothing” and are exploited by greedy universities. This is a half-truth. The players are clearly exploited (and the colleges are indeed greedy businesses trying to turn a profit), but very few in the world we all live in are not exploited. Be that as it may, the athletes certainly do not play for nothing. They get free tuition, room, board, and books (which they may or may not read, but they can certainly sell them back to the university or used book stores). And that’s a helluva lot of money these days. Just ask the struggling non-athlete. And I hesitate to mention the money and perks athletes now get “under the table” which go largely unnoticed.

(Just an aside: I recall years ago when the make-believe line between amateur and professional was still being bandied about about in tennis, as it is now by the NCAA which is  nothing of not delusional.  Roy Emerson was asked why he didn’t turn professional and he said he couldn’t afford to. He was making too much money as an “amateur.”)

I return to my argument, however, because it’s all about honesty. Let’s honestly admit that the majority of Division I athletes are using collegiate sports as a platform on which to display their talents. They are not students in any sense of that term. Given the drop-out rates, the failure to graduate rates, the constant bombardment of news about cheating on papers in their classes, and the like, let’s stop calling most of these people “student-athletes.”  As I said long ago, they SHOULD be paid as would any other semi-professional athlete. And then those few who want to actually attend classes and get an education (or what passes for education these days) should pay for it just like any other student. At the very least they would become aware of the incredible amount those who went before them were “paid” in the form of free tuition, room, and board.

As I said then and I say again: it’s simply more honest. The NCAA has opened the door and it will be thrown wide open very soon. But the reasons for that opening are all wrong and still sustain the myth of the student-athlete which at the Division I level in the sports mentioned above is pure fiction. They are not students unless they choose to be so and as semi-professional athletes they should be paid what they are worth — as determined by the demands of the “marketplace.”

Kicking Dead Horses

I have been beating this poor horse until he is long dead. I speak, of course, about the corruption in collegiate athletics which I first started writing about twelve years ago. I dare say you have heard about the latest scandal at Auburn where athletes were paid to remain on the football team rather than turn pro and grades were altered to guarantee that certain players would be eligible to play in a bowl game. This comes on the heels of the scandal at Rutgers where a basketball coach was fired and his assistant resigned after films were aired on television showing both of those men hurling basketballs and homophobic epithets at their players, kicking at them, and generally making spectacles of themselves to the endless entertainment of the ESPN viewers. A handful of faculty  at Rutgers (only a handful?) has written a letter demanding the resignation of the athletics director and the president of the university who both knew about the behavior of the coaches since last November and chose to treat it lightly it until it became public knowledge.

There are several things about these incidents that concern me and move me to prod the poor horse once again. To begin with, why didn’t the president of Rutgers fire the coach immediately upon seeing the films that have recently become public knowledge rather than to merely fine him and require that he attend anger-management classes? Further, why didn’t he or his A.D. fire the assistant coach who simply was allowed to resign? And why was the head coach paid a $100,000 bonus “for completing the season” after he was fired? All of these questions are begging for answers, but are below the one that tops my list: why don’t the officials at these universities act prior to the release of information to the general public? As the talking heads on ESPN were quick to point out, everyone has known for six decades that things are rotten in the state of Division I athletics. What has been exposed at Rutgers and Auburn is almost certainly going on at other Division I schools, probably all of them. Why does it take public embarrassment to make the administrators at those institutions take action? If it’s not just plain stupidity, then I suppose it must be about money. There’s a tremendous amount of money involved in athletics at that level. The reason the athletics director at Rutgers has not as of this writing been fired, for example, is that (reportedly) he was instrumental in bringing Rutgers into the Big Ten — which will guarantee the school a minimum of $25 million a year as a member of that august athletic conference (which will soon consist of fourteen members: go figure). It really is all about money, isn’t it? Money is more important to these institutions of higher education than the students they are supposed to serve. You would think that at the very least they would want to avoid the public humiliation. Maybe it is stupidity.

There are those who will defend this sort of corruption on the grounds that it merely reflects the culture at large. While I must agree that this is true in this case, I have never understood that defense. Doesn’t that condemn the culture at large rather than defending the institutions that have sold their souls for filthy lucre?

Sports Lessons

The recent debacle at Penn State has the world of sports in an uproar. Joining the fray is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, argued that the situation with the Penn State football team “shows a major university that has been more interested in protecting itself than in educating its students.” This is a bit of an overstatement, as the behavior of the coaches and administration at this university doesn’t prove quite that much, but it is certainly the case that is is a symptom of deep issues in higher education —  at the Division I level, at least at one of its most honored representative institutions. Penn State has been proven insular and it does protect its athletes from public scrutiny. The football team, for example, lives in separate dorms and team members are disciplined (?) for misconduct by the football coach, not the usual judicial system at the university. But that hardly allows us to draw conclusions about the whole of higher education or even about Penn State and its alleged failure in educating its students who don’t happen to be athletes or members of the football team.

At the same time, it does raise questions about the priorities at Division I schools where athletics has gotten out of control — at least in the “revenue” sports. Clearly, the priorities at these schools need to be reexamined and revised, as I have suggested elsewhere. Education must always come first. Unfortunately, however, educators are not clear about their goals. They hide their ignorance behind a wall of jargon and “theory” that consists largely of droppings from the table of pop psychology. Or, at the higher levels, they bury their noses in their areas of expertise and ignore the larger issues of education altogether. Education most assuredly has lost its way: it no longer knows what it is about — if it ever did.  Ironically, then, educators might do well to look to sports for a paradigm. Not Division I sports, perhaps, but sports at the “lower” end of the spectrum.

Consider: athletes must do things they don’t want to and they must do so with a smile. If teachers ask their students to read an assignment they don’t want to read, they often “blow it off.” They might flunk the test, but if they come up with a good excuse they will almost assuredly be allowed to take a “make-up.” Or they turn in their term papers late and take an “incomplete.” Athletes can’t do this. They must lift the weights, run the laps, turn up to practice every day, whether they want to or not. In addition, they know that failure is part of the game. No team always wins; someone must lose. In education, we don’t want our students to experience failure, and we protect them in any way we can. Everyone must succeed. “No child left behind,” and all that rot. Athletes learn about failure and they learn from failure. Athletes also learn about discipline, while in education this word has gotten a bad reputation and is to be avoided at all costs. Students learn to shift the blame (“she gave me a ‘D’ on my term paper!”) Athletes learn to accept responsibility for their actions (“My bad!”) Sports reflect life in ways that the classroom does not. And that is food for thought. Perhaps, despite the misplaced emphasis on Division I sports, sports at “lower” levels can teach us a great deal — as it can the athletes who participate in those sports.

It is a sad commentary on contemporary education to note that sports appears to be the last bastion for self-discipline and other-regard. In sports the team comes first and players know that winning depends on their playing a part and not, necessarily, being center-stage —  Division I sports and professional sports to the contrary notwithstanding. Self esteem is built around success on the court or the playing field, it is not a platitude that is mouthed by a well-meaning teacher to all students regardless of their accomplishments. There is something refreshingly honest about sports that is missing in the hype and hyperbole of educational platitudes.