“Student Athletes”

I ask my readers respectfully to allow for a moment of silence as we bury once and for all the myth of the student athlete.

R.I.P.

With the corona virus off and running and spreading ill health and death to many on the planet, I note that university presidents and athletics directors around this country are desperately searching for alternatives to what they see as the end of sports as we know them. They talk about playing football in the Fall in front of empty stadia — even when the colleges and universities are closed for business due to the virus scare. I say “they” meaning “some” because a few presidents realize that the claptrap they speak in public about the student-athlete dies as soon as plans such as these are even discussed, much less pursued.

If these “student-athletes” play football before empty stadia and especially while classrooms are empty as well, then the myth lives no longer. The players are professionals and they play because the universities desperately need the revenue from filled stadia. Indeed there NFL is seriously thinking about playing before empty stadia. But they are openly professional. Colleges and universities are not, presumably. One athletics director told a spokesperson on ESPN that his entire athletics program lives or dies with the revenue that comes in from football — as much as 80% of their entire income comes from attendance and gifts during the football season. Interesting.

Another idea floating out there that is designed to save the athletics programs is to have the football season played in the Spring. This idea has very few takers, but the fact that it would even be discussed once again lends the lie to the myth of the “student-athlete.” It also lends the lie to the fiction that the student-athlete’s health and well-being is a concern. Given the notion that these young men would play (even a truncated) season in The Spring and then take  a couple of months off and return in July to start practice for Fall football, it is clear that no thought whatever is being given to the health and well-being of the players themselves.

But I have said it before and I will say it again: major college football has nothing whatever to do with education. Basketball, is not mentioned because the revenue from basketball is slight compared with football. Not only are the meager numbers of graduating football players an on-going embarrassment to the universities (even those lesser players who remain on campus for four years), but there is now talk about paying them since their performances are obviously so essential to the running of the athletics programs where, in many cases, as many as eighteen different sports are played by great numbers of “student-athletes” – and supported by the football program.

The notion that Spring football is even a remote possibility, as is the more likely notion that games would go on in front of empty stadia in order to at least being in some television revenue, makes it impossible for anyone to use the phrase “student-athlete” with a straight face — at least in the context of major sports at the largest of our universities.

Stay tuned….

 

Ethical Dilemma

In 1993 I wrote an ethics textbook designed to provoke thought in undergraduates and at the same time suggest that it is possible to think about ethical issues –not just emote. The book did not sell particularly well but was later picked up by a larger publisher and is still in print and selling fairly well (which amazes me no end). But one of the things I was particularly pleased about in that book was the final chapter which consisted of a number of case studies in fields as far apart as medicine and business — though those two are not so far apart these days. One of the categories was sports and I included a case that was actually based on a young man who had played football at the university where I taught — a “small potatoes” football team with a top-line player. The example changes his name but is based on what actually happened to that young man. I place it here to provoke thought (!) and to raise the question of whether what is legal is always necessarily moral or ethical.

At the age of 17 William”Willie” Smith was caught dealing drugs in his home state of Florida. While he was awaiting trial he enrolled at a local Junior Colleege and later transferred to a four-year university in Minnesota to complete his degree and play football — which he did very well. In the interim he was tried and found guilty of the drug charge, but he was given a delayed sentence to allow him to complete his college degree. After the completion of his degree he was to serve a nine year sentence.

Willie’s understanding was that his case would be reviewed at the end of his college career and that he would almost certainly be placed on probation (and not sent to jail) if he kept his nose clean — which he did. He continued to work on his degree and he played football so well he was drafted by an N.F.L. team in the ninth round. When it was announced that he had been drafted a reporter form his home town ran a story about his brush with the law and his later success. In the ensuing confusion the judge who had tried Willie’s case three years previously held  a press conference and, noting that athletes should not be given special treatment, repeated her ruling that Willie was to serve nine years in prison as soon as he completed his degree. The N.F.L. team that had drafted Willie immediately announced the they were no longer interested in Willie.

Did the judge do the right thing? What do you think?

Odd Goings-On

I have noted (endlessly?) that intercollegiate athletics at our major universities have taken over the show. One of the comments by a reader of a recent post on this topic mentioned that when she returned to her alma mater for a reunion not long ago she noted that the English department at her old university — which flourished while she was there — was now pathetic, small in numbers and anemic. Yet the football program is huge and costly. This has become the norm, sad to say.

But one of the peculiar  things to have come out of this dominance of sports, especially football, on college campuses has to do with the ridiculous Bowl season which is about over as I write. I mentioned in a prior blog post that there are now 40 Bowl games during the holidays. But a few years ago the NCAA instituted a playoff of sorts to determine the National Champion — a prize worth millions. It involves the four best teams according to a blue-ribbon panel that decides on the basis of statistics and “the eye test” which four teams should play off for the Grand Prize. Those teams who don’t make the final four are relegated to the lesser Bowl games — such as the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl — all with corporate sponsors of course (which should tell us a thing or two about what is going on here). Those “lesser” Bowl games still involve good teams, though the criterion of 6 victories minimum to make the team eligible for the games makes for some lopsided games. Not all the teams involved are all that good.

In any event, of recent note is the fact that an increasing number of young men destined for the NFL have decided to opt out of the Bowl Games — not those involved in the National Championship (so far), but in the lesser games. They (and their agents) have decided it is too risky to play in a meaningless game where they might get hurt and reduce their value in the pro football market. Georgia recently had several of its star players sit out of their Bowl game for this reason (and they won anyway, which is interesting).

Just prior to the Rose Bowl (the “granddaddy of them all”) an interviewer spoke with Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin — one of the two teams involved in the Rose Bowl game. Taylor is a star running back who has set a number of university and national records and is a sure bet to go high in the upcoming NFL draft. She asked him why he had decided to play in the game when so many of those who also have a promising professional career ahead of them were opting out to maximize their value to a professional team. Taylor said that he regarded the Rose Bowl as a privilege and an honor and since it took a team effort to get there it would be wrong of him to opt out and lessen the chances of his team winning. This was astonishing to me as it suggested that there is at least one young man who realizes that there is something more important in this world than the self and — as they like to say — there is no “I” in team.

He was right, not only factually but also morally. There is a duty that so many of these young men are ignoring: their universities have paid them (in the form of free tuition, room, board, and books) to pay for the team. And it was the team that put them into position to shine and increase their market value (if you will). But they see only the chance to make millions of dollars and they weigh it against the possibility that they will get hurt in the Bowl game and they decide to opt out — except for a few young men like Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor is an exceptional running back for Wisconsin. But more importantly, he is also a remarkable young man. He showed that he understands a bit more than so many of his fellow players about what it means to be on a team. I applaud him for that.

(Oh, and may I also mention the he is a philosophy major at Wisconsin? Coincidence, to be sure, but interesting none the less.)

Once Again In the Toilet Bowl!

I update and repost this in my ongoing effort to spit into the wind. There is something radically wrong in academia where the business model has become the paradigm and students are regarded as clients. But major sports are clearly still the tail that wags the dog!

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: 40 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 in any way shape or form.

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 (though not this year, sad to say). 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. The institutions regard them as a source of money, as faculty fight for their precious territory and students are lost in the shuffle. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty also fight for their territory but also 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.

Hanging It Up

News of the retirement of Andrew Luck, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and only 29 years of age, shocked the sports world. As recounted in Yahoo News:

After a lengthy battle with injuries in recent years, Andrew Luck is officially calling it a career.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback announced that he is retiring from the NFL after just six seasons on Saturday night.

“This is not an easy decision,” Luck said after the Colts’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears. “Honestly it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.

“For the last four years or, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab. Injury, pain, rehab. And it’s been unceasing, unrelenting — both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football.”

“I’m in pain. I’m still in pain,” Luck said. “I’ve been in this [pain] cycle … and for me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football.”

The 29-year-old was on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium for their preseason game against Chicago and remained there even after news of his retirement broke. Colts fans picked up the news during the game, too, and then booed Luck as he walked off the field following their 27-17 loss.

In and of itself, the news of a professional athlete retiring is noteworthy — especially an athlete as talented as Andrew Luck. But what makes this story particularly disturbing is the crowd reaction.

For some reason the brain trust at the Colts organization decided to announce the quarterback’s retirement during a pre-season football game. The announcement might have been made on Friday a press conference with no crowd around to express their disappointment and disapproval of the man’s decision. But they chose instead to announce it during the game. One wonders why.

The crowd at the game booed mightily — and that’s the disturbing part of this story. Some took off their Luck jerseys and threw therm to the ground. I am reminded of the day many years ago when Johnny Unitas was still playing for the Baltimore Colts and, after many years of playing a brutal game he was struggling. The crowd reaction was to boo him mightily. This was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time who had made the Baltimore Colts one of the best, if not the best, team in professional football at the time. What’s with those people?

And that is the question: what is wrong with people that they would boo a man who has displayed such remarkable athletic ability for so many years. Andrew Luck, as the story recounts, has been dealing with pain for years. Many professional football players cannot get out of bed when they are in their forties. Pain is a fact of their lives. And, for some, it is relentless. Apparently Andrew Luck doesn’t want to be among those men.In my mind this is admirable, it shows signs of prudence. But the fans see only the blaze of glory on Sunday fizzling out and know that now they cannot hope to be able to strut with pride when their team wins the big prize. Seriously folks, it’s only a game and these are people who feel pain and hurt when booed.

In a word, the fans care only about the fact that the odds of the Colts winning the Super Bowl this year dropped from 15-1 to 30-1 after the announcement of Luck’s retirement. Their hopes are dashed. The man is that good. But, in addition to being a man in pain, he is a player who was smart enough to know when to hang it up. A great many athletes play on long after they have passed their prime. I suspect they don’t know what else to do. But then there’s the dopamine that is released when they make a great play and the fans go wild. That keeps many a star athlete going — men such as Johnny Unitas. The game can be addictive.

I applaud Andrew Luck for knowing when to call it quits. The fact that he is walking away from an estimated half-billion dollars in retiring at this point suggests that this is a man of courage and even wisdom. And the fact that the fans booed this man is deplorable.

Sport as Religion

I have been a sports enthusiast as long as I remember. I played all manner of sports though tennis was always my best sport and I eventually became a teaching professional and a coach and was able to see the sport from a different angle and appreciate it even more than I had when I played. There are those who think sports are a waste of time, but I disagree. So does John Carroll, as it happens. You remember John Carroll? I have referred to his books frequently of late because they do provide an excellent spark to ignite thought. Or something.

In any event, Carroll has a chapter in his book Ego And Soul devoted to sport. He thinks it is one of a number of ways that modern  men and women find meaning inter lives. And he makes out an excellent case that sports in our culture have displaced religion and as such play a vital role in a culture that desperately needs something to draw people out of themselves. Sports do just that. We have heard that football, for example, allows those who play and those who watch to release their aggressive impulses. This is a healthy thing, though it apparently does not release enough aggression in enough people, sad too say. But sports in general have become larger than life and they make possible the ecstasy that is frequently identified with the religious experience by Zen masters and they also make possible the sense of euphoria and catharsis that are frequently associated with that very religious experience. Religion, for most people, has lost that ability and has become mainly ritual that leaves the participant empty and dissatisfied. Sports fills the gap, according to John Carroll. Take the Olympics, for example.

“The modern West has created one global cult of mythic force. The modern Olympic Games has become the pre-eminent international institution.

“The modern Olympic Games was initiated in 1896 by the a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin — 1500 years after the ancient Olympics were closed down by a Christian Roman emperor on the grounds that they were too pagan. Coubertin sought to recreate the classical Greek ideal of religious festival in which humans perform athletic and cultural feats at the highest level of excellence.

” Coubertin was strongly influenced by the English Public Schools. It was, in particular, the emphasis in Thomas Arnold’s Rugby on developing the character of the boys, linked to the neo-Hellenic ideal of a ‘sound mind in a healthy body.’ For Arnold, sport played a key role, but it was not sport for its own sake. Coubertin’s adaptation was to take education out of the school and into the public arena. He then harnessed sport to his pedagogical ends by orchestrating the games within a totality of brilliantly conceived ritualized drama. He created what would become the modern religious festival, dwarfing all others, rising, as if on cue, as the Christian churches began to empty.

“Coubertin was quite explicit that his was to be a religious revival, and that it was pagan. He spoke of new gods to replace the dying old ones. He lamented in the 1930s that the Games were turning into a marketing spectacle; he had intended them as a Temple, in which religio athletae was to be practiced. . . .

“The spirit of classical Greek religion had been rekindled. By taking sport, and setting it in a larger metaphysical context, a neo-pagan festival had been recreated that appeals to the religious sensibility of the secular modern West.”

We are all aware of the commercial spectacle the Olympics has become, with players being paid by their countries for the medals they win. But at the heart of this spectacle, especially during the grand opening of the Games, we can see suggestions of what Coubertin had in mind. The Games were to be the new religion. They were to provide for participants and spectators alike a deep religious experience, taking them out of themselves and moving them to new  heights of appreciation for the beauty that is athleticism at its best. Thus we have the religious experience par excellence: ceremony; aesthetic delight; ecstatic and cathartic experience. All in the interest of connecting us with one another and with the greater world outside the self.

Those who participate in sports have described the rare experience of “being in the zone” in which they don’t think but simply feel and act as if on a high. This is ecstasy as it is described by the gurus and mystics who meditate until they reach nirvana. Shades of it can be experienced in the company of great works of art, when the aesthetic becomes the totality of the world: the painting, sculpture, or music become all there is. At this point, as Carroll would have it, ego and soul become one. Balance is achieved. This can happen not only for the athlete but for the spectator as well — especially in large groups such as a packed crowd in a sporting event when “it’s all on the line.”

To a degree, all sports can achieve this, according to Carroll. Even the individual sports such as golf and tennis. They fill a vacuum that has been created by the death of religion which, all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, no longer enriches the spirit or replenishes the human soul of the vast majority of people in the West.

Certainly a novel and most interesting suggestion, is it not?

On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

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”??)

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.

Play For Pay

Nick Weiler is a kicker for the football team at the University of North Carolina. A week ago, with 4 seconds to go against Florida State, he kicked a 54 yard field goal to win the game and was therefore raised in the eyes of the Tar Heel faithful to the level of hero. Throughout his four years at North Carolina he has been an extraordinarily talented kicker and will assuredly be drafted into the NFL after graduation — if he graduates. Graduation doesn’t seem be a high priority for those who play football in Division I of the NCAA.

In any event, after the game-winning kick ESPN decided to send one of their reporters to visit with Nick for a day and do a “piece” showing their viewers what it is like to be the Big Man on Campus. As it happens, Nick doesn’t spend much time on campus, preferring to keep a low profile in his off-campus digs and just “hanging” with this friends — when not on the practice field. As far as I could tell from the brief piece very little of his time, if any, is spent in class or the library. In fact, if this young man’s experience is typical of athletes in Division I football, going to class is not much of a priority. It’s all about the game and about emerging as a star in order to have a chance to play in the NFL.

The sense that the sport is of primary concern at the Division I level was driven home to me personally not many years ago when a transfer from the University of Minnesota played tennis for my team for one year. She told me that as a Freshman she was told at that Division I school to take her classes before noon. After noon she “belonged to the tennis team.” This is women’s tennis, folks!! In contrast, we practiced two hours each afternoon and played most of our matches on weekends in order not to miss classes.

But, back to football. There are other stories like Nick’s. I had a good friend years ago who attended the University of Illinois back in the day of Dick Butkus who, it was said, hung out in the student union until, in his words, it was time to “go to work.” He was there to play football and he did that very well — well enough to become a Hall of Fame NFL player. And he also made movies to entertain us all!

These are anecdotes, of course, and don’t allow us to draw reliable generalizations. But, none the less, they give us a glimpse into the life of the semi-professional football players in Division I football — who are, reportedly, also given to violence off the field, especially toward young women. But, again, we must be careful about generalizations. I am sure there are a great many young men out there who actually respect women, go to class, and end up with a degree in hand at the end of four years. A few at any rate. Division I football programs are not famous for their high graduation rates.

In fact, I recommended years ago in an article I wrote for the Montana Professor (http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html) that the athletes in Division I football — and basketball — be paid to play and not required to attend classes at all. Folks don’t care about these young men and what they might or not do after college — unless they go on to play for the NFL or the NBA which is apparently their dream. If they were paid a salary to play football or basketball then they could, if they wanted to do so, pay for some classes and actually earn a college degree just like their fellow students. And they would graduate without the huge debts incurred by their classmates!

In any event, let’s stop calling them scholar-athletes and going through the rigamarole of making them attend classes just for show. So many are in college for just one thing: to make it into the pros. So let’s be honest and admit that these are semi-professional athletes in what are, in effect, the minor leagues of their sports simply working to achieve a level of proficiency that will make them attractive to the professional teams.

In a word, what we do at present, in addition to exploiting these young men, is a sham and dishonest to boot. Let’s pay these men — even let them join unions — to play the games they love and wear the uniforms of their respective colleges and universities. But don’t make them go to class at all, even to take underwater basket-weaving and other non-challenging courses designed to make their lives as easy as possible while they maintain their NCAA eligibility to play games. If they really want a college education, they can pay for it like everyone else. If not, they can simply “go to work” each day and hope to land a huge salary playing at the professional level after a few years at the Division I level. At the very least, it’s more honest than what we do at present.