Still Pertinent?

Back in 2001 I wrote an article titled “Intercollegiate Athletics: The Tail That Wags The Dog” which was published in Montana Professor. In the article I analyzed the then current situation in intercollegiate athletics and pointed out what was then (and now) a serious problem; I speak of the corruption in NCAA Division I athletics, especially football and basketball and I recommended that the best possible solution was to eliminate the athletic “scholarships,” pay the athletes who played those sports at the major universities a reasonable salary, and let those few who wanted to receive an education pay for it out of their earnings. I thought it more honest and a worthwhile experiment at the time and I find it fascinating that now a good deal of talk has surfaced about the need to pay the athletes who play because they are being exploited by the schools they represent which are making tons of money from television and gate receipts.

In any event, I started the article with a couple of charges against the universities themselves which have lost their way, forgotten that their objective is to educate the young, not entertain them. With a few comments added for clarification, I simply quote those paragraphs here as I think they are still pertinent — if not impertinent!

Assuming we ever knew where we were going, in America, at least, higher education has lost its way. We are confused about what it is we are supposed to be and what it is we are supposed to do–which is to empower young people, to put them in possession of their own minds. These young people come to us decidedly unfree. For all practical purposes, they cannot read, write, or figure. They therefore cannot think their own thoughts or initiate their own actions, which are the activities that define us as human beings. These students belong to their parents, to television, to the malls, to advertisers, and to a hedonistic youth culture; though they believe themselves to be so, they are not free in any meaningful sense of that term. They are surrounded by options but they are unable to make informed choices; they cannot separate fact from fiction or reasonable opinions from wishful thinking; nor can they foresee consequences or entertain antithetical points of view. Our secondary schools cannot help because they are caught up in methodology, and society places impossible demands on the underpaid teacher’s time. Consequently, as things now stand, the only institutions standing between young people and a lifetime of slavery to whim and to manipulation by others are our colleges and universities, which, for the most part, do not seem to be up to the task. As Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in this regard, “students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job.”  It is worth noting in this regard that Princeton University’s law school implemented remedial courses for their students because the college graduates that come to them, in many cases, do not have the reading, writing, and thinking skills required to do the work demanded of them.

Higher education is at present tangled in a web of conflicting ideologies, disputes over territory, and faculty concerns over tenure and job security. We have bought into myths that delude us into thinking education is about providing students with jobs, shoving them into the fast lane on the information highway, or indoctrinating them about cultural diversity in the name of what a zealous handful has determined is social justice. However, “vocational education” is an oxymoron: education should not be confused with job-training, though we would hope that educated persons would be able to find and hold a good job; education does not require the most advanced technical gadgets, because faster does not mean better; and finally, education must not be confused with indoctrination, though we would expect free minds to reject injustice wherever it is found.

Because it is hidden in the dust stirred up by these controversies, we can barely make out one of the most widely ignored obstacles standing between students and their inner freedom, namely, the multi-million dollar business we call “intercollegiate athletics.” In this article I should like to bring that obstacle into sharper focus.

I would only add to this  two items: (1) colleges and universities themselves have become “multi-million dollar businesses,” and (2) I would add “social media” to the above list of the major factors enslaving today’s young while giving them the illusion of freedom. In fact it should be at the top of the list!

If you are interested in reading more of this article, it is online at https://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html

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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.

The Statue

You have probably heard they removed the statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State and put it in “a safe place” somewhere:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State University will remove the famed statue of Joe Paterno outside its football stadium, eliminating a key piece of the iconography surrounding the once-sainted football coach accused of burying child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant.

I must confess I have been of two minds on this issue for some time. I recently wrote in a blog that the statue should not be removed because its removal would be a falsification of events: it is a rewriting of history. Like it or not, Joe Paterno spent the best part of his life at Penn State and had a tremendous impact on countless lives –both positive and, as we now know, negative. His football teams were a model for the rest of the country, or so it seemed. But in light of recent events and the pivotal role Paterno played in the fourteen-year cover up of his assistant coach’s attacks on young boys, I now think the President of the University is making the correct decision.

I was persuaded by an outstanding editorial in a recent issue (July 23, 2012) of Sports Illustrated that reminded me of something I said in print a number of years ago: the purpose of a university is not to promote football (or sports in general) it is to educate young people. As I said in an article in The Montana Professor: The tail wags the dog at the Division I level. Sports play a disproportionately large role in the university in our day. Perhaps this was a wake-up call to restore instruction to its proper place at the center of the university. In the case of Penn State and its football program, the editors of Sports Illustrated put it very well:

Why not instead [of cancelling the football program] have Penn Staters create the program they always claimed to have? Football is supposed to enhance the academic experience at Penn State as part of Paterno’s Grand Experiment. The school can stop selling the idea and implement it. Use football for a more concrete cause: Profits from the coming season could be diverted to create a facility to study and destigmatize child sex abuse.

I had suggested in my earlier blog a monument to the children who suffered at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, but this is an even better idea: a living reminder of the atrocities that man committed on that campus in memory of the young boys who were the victims. And a program such as the one mentioned here could do immeasurable good in the face of the many terrible events that occurred repeatedly in the last fourteen years on that campus.

Football should never have been allowed to take the place of honor it took at Penn State. No coach should have been allowed to have the power and influence that Joe Paterno had in State College. But as horrendous as this scandal was, we all know this is just the tip of the iceberg. So much money is involved in NCAA Division I football that corruption is rampant on college campuses all across the country as football is given pride of place and education is forced to take a back seat. Let me give you a tiny example of the kind of disproportionate place football has on a college campus, in this case a small university campus involving a small football program with little or no money at stake.

When I was named men’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island many years ago I was approached within days by an assistant football coach who informed me that they would be sending their players to my classes from then on so I could “take care of them.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared dumbly and smiled. These memories percolated recently when I read the comments made by the janitors who witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a young boy and were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. In my case, the issue died, fortunately, as I left the university soon thereafter. But I felt the kind of pressure any young person would feel in a large institution when his job is in jeopardy. One can imagine how the faculty feel at a large university where the football coach is king and members of his team are the privileged few. The tail does indeed wag the dog.

It makes sense to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the Penn State Campus. But  it also makes sense not to deify the football coach on other campuses across the country and not to allow the football program to be the focus of what is going on at that university. We have not heard the last about the scandal at Penn State. As I write this the NCAA is preparing to levy strict penalties against this particular university, to make an example of it as it were. But there are potential scandals aplenty “out there” on other campuses and levying penalties and removing statues — while entirely appropriate — are hardly more than small steps toward restoring the proper order of things at our universities.