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.