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.

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In The Aftermath

Welcome to the age of hyperbole where an increasingly tongue-tied population attempts to describe what is going on around them and cannot “find the words” without using superlatives or clichés.  This happens daily but was nowhere more evident than in the recent horrific events in Boston where 3 people were killed and more than 170 injured in two bomb explosions. Interviewers asked dumb questions of eye-witnesses who could only pause and say “it was tragic; it was huge, I can’t explain it.” We have come to the point where the word “tragedy” simply leaps to the tongue whenever something terrible happens. The Greeks, who invented the word, distinguished it from “pathos” which is mere sadness, even extraordinary sadness; they reserved the word “tragedy” for those terrible, and terrifying, events in which a noble person brings his world down around his ears through his own blindness and stupidity. But that has changed and only a pedant would insist that we reserve the word for Greek tragedies. No other word seems to suffice. The term has legitimately come to mean any unexpected event in which innocent people are hurt or killed — though we use it even more loosely than this, of course, when we describe the ACL tear the running back suffers in a vicious tackle as “tragic.”

In any event, it is certainly the case that the bomb explosions in Boston recently were terribly gut-wrenching, whether we want to call the event “tragic” or not. And at times it is hard to find the words to express our grief and outrage. But if we do insist on calling the death of three people and the injury of more than 170 others, a tragedy, then we must agree to use the term to apply to the death of men, women, and children in the Middle East where as many as 880 innocent people, including 176 children, have been killed in drone strikes that have taken an estimated 3,325 lives only 2% of whom were the militant leaders who were targeted. These are estimates, of course, and they probably err on the low side. The Obama administration is not forthcoming about the effects of the drone strikes and this in itself is unsettling. We are certainly not informed about these figures on a daily basis, nor shown film or pictures of the carnage, as we were (and still are) on TV following the explosions in Boston. Indeed, the photo here is a rare one showing the aftermath of a drone strike in Pakistan that involved a number of civilian deaths, including this child.

Child killed in drone attack

Child Killed In Drone Attack

But we must remember that we are the ones responsible for those deaths and that destruction in the Middle East which is many times greater than what happened in Boston. So while we pray for those who suffered or died in the aftermath of the bombings in Boston, we should take a moment to pray for those innocent people who are dying on a regular basis in crowded cities on the other side of the earth as a result of decisions made by our government. They, too, suffer. And their loses are as meaningful to them as ours are to us.

We may find it hard to find the right words to express our feelings and describe what is going on around us, but whatever those words are we should make sure we acknowledge that they apply to other people as well as to us.  No one who engages in these sorts of attacks on other human beings is in the right. And if we are convinced that those who planted the bombs in Boston are evil people who should be punished, it raises serious questions about the culpability of this nation as it prances about on the world stage flexing its muscles. We have become an increasingly bellicose and arrogant country of late and while it hurts to say so, there are those around the world who might insist we have this sort of thing coming.

The NRA On Hypocrisy

I get the feeling that this fight is about to get really ugly: the latest in the battle that is ongoing over gun control involves the mean, personal attack the NRA is running that charges the president with “hypocrisy.” Consider the following lead paragraph:

In a sign of how brutal, emotional and deeply personal the coming battle over gun violence is likely to be, the National Rifle Association on Tuesday accused President Barack Obama of hypocrisy for having the Secret Service protect his daughters even as he opposes the NRA’s call for armed guards in schools.

The vitriolic ad also calls Obama “elitist.” This word, of course, is aimed at the blue-collar rifle owners the NRA is keen to convince Obama wants to disarm. It’s a sure-fire “scare” term that is guaranteed to piss someone off. I have even seen it used against the liberal arts, if you can imagine, in an effort to cast aspersions on studies directed at improving the mind but not preparing students for work. It does seem to be effective in that it persuades people — and that’s the object. It appeals to the emotions, not the brain. And the charge that Obama is a hypocrite is also designed to get the knees jerking among the intellectually challenged.

The fact of the matter is that Presidents have always required protection — as do their families — because there are folks out there carrying guns (as permitted) who would just as soon kill them all. And kidnapping members of the President’s family is always a very real possibility. He is in a special, very public, position and it is not hypocritical on the President’s part to want the children of less public folks to be protected against nut-cases who carry assault weapons into schools. And Columbine has shown that having armed guards at the schools is not the answer: it just sells more guns. Obama’s concern is born of what appears to be genuine empathy for the parents of those whose children were massacred in Connecticut.

And, speaking of hypocrisy, those who live in glass houses should be careful about the stones they throw. Congress is opposed to gun control, for the most part, yet they have metal detectors at every entrance to their hallowed halls to make sure a madman doesn’t wander in and start shooting. So if the NRA wants to target hypocrisy (sorry!) they had best start with the folks they sponsor and help get elected to public office — those who toe the mark and do as they are told and who will therefore be able to count on reelection the next time around. And speaking of hypocrisy, it seems just a bit hypocritical for the gun manufacturers who fund the NRA and clearly have the most at stake in this gun control game to pretend they give a tinker’s dam about the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

But I think the most disturbing thing about this fight over gun control is the fear and hatred that are being stirred up by those who have decided to take the gloves off and fight bare knuckles. The level of discourse keeps getting lower and lower. But we now live in an era of fear and suspicion — and personal attacks funded by corporations whose only concern is with profits — where the emotions are carefully played like a fine instrument by people skilled at producing the melodies they want to hear. I think I can hear the orchestra tuning up in the background. Brace yourself!