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.)