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

Legal Advice

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the Bible of sports fans across the country, an attorney by the name of Michael McCann wrote that Jameis Winston should quit Florida State and wait for the NFL draft where he will assuredly be a high pick and will then become another spoiled millionaire football player (I added the last caustic comment). You remember Winston, surely? He was investigated for raping a fellow student a year or so back and in the brief police cover up investigation it was determined that there was no case against the young man. He later stole some crab legs from a grocery store, claiming he “forgot” to pay and was summarily released. He then stood on a table in the cafeteria and shouted obscenities at the top of his voice — for which offense he was suspended one game by the football coach. He is a real jewel. Each time he screws up he faces the camera with an earnest expression on his face and swears it won’t happen again.

In any event, McCann’s professional advice is for the young man to quit school because the university has decided to investigate the alleged rape on its own and could bring charges against Winston, and possibly suspend him, on the grounds that he violated the rights of one of his fellow students. Indeed. McCann’s idea is that if Winston leaves the university, the investigation will never surface. If he remains enrolled evidence might come to light that would not only lead to his suspension from the university but also provide grounds for a possible civil case later on. As McCann puts it, it’s a question of what is in Winston’s “best interest.”

And there’s the rub: it’s what is in the young man’s “best interest” in the eyes of this lawyer. The young man should quit and not face the possible consequences of his actions. He should quit school and lie low, making sure he commits no further atrocities, until the NFL comes calling and he can sign on for the big bucks that surely await him. Given his past behavior this is more easily said than done, of course: he seems to lack self-control. But McCann doesn’t mention that. Be that as it may, the issue of what is morally correct is not considered by Mr. McCann, who chooses to focus attention on legal and practical matters. The fact that the young man would be ducking his responsibilities as a citizen and member of the university community is apparently irrelevant according to Mr. McCann. What is important here as this lawyer sees it is the issue of saving face and making big money later on.

In a follow-up issue of Sports Illustrated one reader wrote, with tongue in cheek, that McCann is right and that Winston should quit and go back to third grade where he would learn “that stealing is wrong, swearing is not acceptable, and that women should be treated with respect.” Another reader put is more seriously: “I was disappointed with McCann’s article. He basically wrote a blueprint for how Winston could avoid disciplinary action for his alleged heinous acts against a female student.” Spot on! What was it Shakespeare said? We should kill all the lawyers. He knew a thing or two, even if McCann doesn’t.

In any event, the entire episode underscores once again the rotten state of things at the heart of big-time college football and basketball. As I wrote years ago, the athletes should be regarded as semi-professionals and paid a decent salary to play — even allowing them to form unions to make sure they get a fair share of the millions of dollars at stake in college sports these days. Then, those who actually want an education can enroll in classes and pay like all the other students, thereby learning what those students are learning every day —  that after graduation it will be hard to find a job and there will be huge debts to be paid to the colleges and universities when they finally do find one. The things in this life that are most worth having are not those things that are simply handed to you: they are the things you work hard to earn.

Olympic Impressions

Although I have made mention of the Olympic Games a few times in my blogs, it occurs to me that even though they are not quite over it would be fun to look back at the worst and best of the games — from my perspective, of course. The Games have inspired such brilliantly funny writers as Jennifer Worrell to write about her crush on Ryan Lochte in his skimpy speedo — though Jennifer complained recently that the thrill may have sent her muse to a nude beach in the Caribbean and she was struggling to find her usual cache of very funny words and phrases. [ Personally, I don’t think he was at the nude beach ogling women at all. I’m pretty sure I saw him at the local swimming pool ogling other men. I think he may be gay….not that there’s anything wrong with that!] Anyway, there are some pluses and some definite minuses as I take a look back.

To begin with there are the remarkable athletic feats that seem to pop up every day. I recall a woman on the Brazilian volleyball team streaking 15 yards away from the back line and then sliding to her tooshie to kick the ball back over her head to a team-mate who casually spiked the ball for a winner. No way! And there are the incredibly precise though not terribly elegant Chinese divers who barely make a ripple in the water as they enter after impossible twists and turns. And, of course, the skill shown by America’s modern-day Annie Oakley, Kim Rhode, who doesn’t seem to miss a clay pigeon anywhere within 200 yards. There are others too numerous to mention — including the gymnasts, all of them: how the hell do they do that!? But beyond all the athleticism, there are those special moments like the one where South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who ran with prostheses but did not qualify for the final, embraced and exchanged jerseys with a fellow competitor after the race.

The contests themselves reveal both the best and the worst in each of us. Though the gold match was exciting, I particularly recall the women’s soccer (excuse me “football”) match with Canada which went into extra periods with increasing tension until a header by Alex Morgan ended it amid the usual agony and ecstasy (and the hype) of victory. It was remarkable, but it presented us with good sportsmanship alongside poor sportsmanship, including “cheap shots” by both teams. But none of these matched the blows to the groins of at least two men’s basketball players that sent them to the floor holding themselves in pain, both involving NBA players.

But that brings us to the worst of the Olympics: the professionals. Clearly there are degrees of professionalism: there are leagues of professional basketball players in Europe who employ many of the players who play for the teams in the Olympics, and there are “Federations” all over the world that treat the athletes like royalty. We were told, for example, that one of the Chinese women who plays beach volleyball (yes, I watched!) practices 4 hours a day six days a week for 50 weeks a year and has done so for ten years! She is supported by her Federation and could easily be regarded as a professional. In fact, if we weeded out the professionals — those who get paid to play — we might end up with a handful of smiling faces holding a medal or two at the end — like the utterly charming Allyson Felix who was interviewed after her win in the women’s 200 meters and told about how excited she was to start teaching elementary school this Fall. But those cases are rare indeed.

At the top of the professional pile are the USA basketball players, male and female, who are paid obscene amounts of money to play the game year ’round and who should be excluded from the Olympic Games, without question. This point was dramatized when the men’s basketball team drubbed hapless Nigeria. It was painful to watch. But then professional tennis players who also make obscene amounts of money playing games should be barred as well. In fact, despite the fact that we would he hard pressed to separate amateurs from professionals for the reasons already given, perhaps there should be a rule that no one who plays a sport full-time should be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games — or no one who makes more than $100,000 — or the equivalent in Euros or Yen (above or below the table). Professionalism is the ugly side of the modern Games. Once money becomes part of the equation it starts to get smelly. The redeeming features are  the beauty, the athleticism, the friendships, and the positive joy of winning that lights the faces of the medal winners. For myself, I would prefer more of the latter and less of the former.