Monday, January 16, 2012

The scrutiny of college sports continues

The final four months of 2011 were not kind to people who value the important role athletics can play on a college campus. Ohio State and Miami -- consistently talked about among the elite programs in college football -- were the latest programs ravaged by scandal.

And then came the sexual assault story that cost Penn State football coach Joe Paterno his job and at least in the short term crushed his legacy and that of the program he built.

It has become fashionable to critically evaluate the purpose of college sports in light of these scandals. Or perhaps it is better to say that because of what has taken place, educators, the media and the public appear more interested in discussing college sports with a more critical eye.

I suggest you read this editorial, written by Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia and appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He explains how being a less-than-perfect high school kid (and football player) set the stage for him tackling the more important challenges in his life. Reminiscing about those high school days, he writes:
I liked the transforming aspect of the game: I came to the field one thing—a diffident guy with a slack body—and worked like a dog and so became something else—a guy with some physical prowess and more faith in himself. Mostly, I liked the whole process because it was so damned hard. I didn't think I could make it, and no one I knew did either. My parents were ready to console me if I came home bruised and dead weary and said that I was quitting. In time, one of the coaches confessed to me that he was sure I'd be gone in a few days. I had not succeeded in anything for a long time: I was a crappy student; socially I was close to a wash; my part-time job was scrubbing pans in a hospital kitchen; the first girl I liked in high school didn't like me; the second and the third followed her lead. But football was something I could do, though I was never going to be anything like a star. It was hard, it took some strength of will, and—clumsily, passionately—I could do it.
Over time, I came to understand that the objective of the game, on the deepest level, wasn't to score spectacular touchdowns or make bone-smashing tackles or block kicks. The game was much more about practice than about the Saturday-afternoon contests. And practice was about trying to do something over and over again, failing and failing, and then finally succeeding part way. Practice was about showing up and doing the same drills day after day and getting stronger and faster by tiny, tiny increments, and then discovering that by the end of the season you were effectively another person.
Later, in looking at his life as an adult, he draws parallels, noting:
I began living in the library—much in the way that I had lived at the football stadium my first summer on the team—arriving in the stacks early, leaving only to go to the gym in the late afternoon and to eat dinner, then returning until past dark. I built a wall of books on my table, as though to cloister myself, like a medieval monk.
Did I call on the old spirit of double sessions? Quietly, I did. I kept it largely to myself, since most scholars don't see much symmetry between what they do and what runners and jumpers and (especially) blockers and tacklers attempt. I read every book in the library on John Keats, the subject of my first chapter, and most of the articles. I wrote and rewrote my first paragraph about 30 times. By the end of the summer, I had a chapter I could be proud of, one that I knew would take me where I wanted to go.
Doctoral dissertations are tougher to write than one might imagine: It's lonely work, and no one (sometimes least of all your director, who has other things to do) cares much if you flourish or pucker on the vine. But compared with what some others are compelled to endure—severe illness, divorce, the mortal sickness of a child—sitting in an air-conditioned library, trying to make sense out of the way other people have tried to make sense of the world, isn't all that daunting.
Others have called on their experience in sports to summon much larger doses of courage. They've used their old sports experiences as a map to take them back to reserves of strength they had forgotten they possessed. "Diversity of strength will attend us," Wordsworth says, "if but once we have been strong." For many of us, the time of being strong was the time we played a sport. Do sports build character? Of course they do. Who could doubt it?
Critics are sure to suggest that playing in the band, being a newspaper delivery kid or any other role where commitment and responsibility is assumed can also build character. As such, why is sports different? Special? Worthy of our attention?

The short and very incomplete answer is because ours is a society that has placed incredible symbolic importance on sports. Winning and losing is important. Just ask my 12-year-old son, who valiantly fought off tears last night as he watched his beloved Green Bay Packers lose to the New York Giants in the NFL playoffs. With all due respect to any other college or professional team, the Packers matter to my son. Their loss was his loss. He stormed off to bed, mumbling what I was convinced was an expletive or two about the Giants. I ignored his words, but tonight I'll use the defeat as an important lesson about life.

And, yes, I'll tell him that I stormed off once or twice when I was a kid after my favorite teams were hammered.

The purpose of college sports gains even more attention as the conversation about paying athletes continues. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a stipend could be in place as early as the 2013-14 academic year.
College athletes are one step closer to qualifying for multiyear scholarships and an extra $2,000 in spending money, thanks to moves made Saturday by the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors.

Reaffirming its support for the two measures, which it first passed in October, the board called for modifications to the $2,000 policy to appease concerns by more than a third of the Division I membership. Many of those colleges had complained that the stipend would lead to gender inequities and a stockpiling of players by wealthier programs.
The board will likely approve the stipend at its next meeting, in April, but players would not start receiving the money until the 2013-14 academic year. Colleges also still have a chance to overturn the rule.
The 18-member NCAA board, which is made up of college presidents and chancellors, voted unanimously to keep the multiyear-scholarships policy in place. It could still be overturned by Division I colleges, but that appears unlikely.
The board’s actions reflect a push by college leaders to shift the focus from recent headlines about scandals and institutional greed to ones showing more empathy for players.
“I think it is obviously an important element of student well-being,” the NCAA’s president, Mark A. Emmert, said of the extra $2,000, in comments here after the board’s meeting. The money is designed to help cover athletes’ total cost of attendance, which full scholarships do not meet.
Spare me the argument that this move demonstrates that athletes are treated differently than any other student. Of course they are. I mean no disrespect to the musician, the scientist or the foreign-language club, but no group of students on campus makes money for the university like the athlete does.

No, I'm not saying that's fair. No, I'm not saying that's good. Yes, I'm saying that's the way it is. If you don't like it, don't follow college sports. And then find an alternative that WILL attract money, attention and other benefits.

Is college athletics perfect? No. Nothing in life is, for that matter. For those of us who care about college athletics, yes, we would like to see a system in place that concentrates less on money and more on intangible benefits. For now, that's not happening. And it's not likely to at any point in the future.

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