Monday, December 10, 2012

What are college sports for?

I've been asked by a couple of people to reprint the text of the monologue from yesterday's episode of WHY? Radio on the NCAA and the philosophy of college sports. I encourage everyone to listen to it; Taylor Branch did a great job. 

"I suppose I should begin by admitting that I’m baffled by sports; I can’t understand the hype and the fanaticism. The way that I usually summarize my feelings is by casting doubt on what I call “the sports we.” A team wins a big championship and their fans start screaming, “We won! We won!” No. we didn’t win. They won. They woke up, trained, practiced, ate right, and devoted their lives to mastering a skill. We sat on the couch eating pizza and wings, and got fat on beer. How are we all in this together? Because we bought poorly made sweatshirts and overpriced hotdogs at the game? I think we've been suckered.

But okay. I understand that in this case, I’m the one who is missing something; I’m out of step. But here’s something that I won’t to bend on. Why would anyone pick a college or university based on their sports teams? Why would anyone allow the quality of their education to be dictated by the success or failure of athletes? And what kind of sick alumnus would refrain from donating a new medical building because the hockey team lost? All the evidence shows that the more devoted a university is to sports, the more sports programs suck academics dry. Almost all Division I programs lose money. In 2009-2010, for example, Michigan State Sports lost over nine million dollars. At today’s rates, that’s 180 new faculty who could teach almost three thousand students. Given Michigan’s class sizes, this might be the same as denying seventy-two thousand students access to their introduction to psychology courses. Seventy-two thousand.

Then there’s the destructive culture. Penn State is famous for binge drinking and destructive tailgating, other schools’ fans riot or set fire to things, and no single force has been more divisive to the University of North Dakota than the debate about whether its logo is racist and should be retired. And let’s not forget the missed classes, the cheating scandals, the deteriorating of academic standards. College Sports is a virus.

Of course, I’m not condemning the athletes themselves. I’ve known quite a few who were good, disciplined students, although, truth be told, this number diminished when UND went from Division II to Division I. Instead, I’m talking about sports programs and more specifically, about the connection between the quality of a university and the success of its teams. I’m asking us to realize that there is absolutely no logical connection between the phrases “good college” and “good sports.” The association of the two is a cultural prejudice, a nonsensical habitual pairing that runs counter to every piece of evidence there is. 

Before we get into today’s discussion then, we have to ask a basic philosophical question: what is the purpose of college sports in the first place? It can’t be scholarships, because why would we select who gets to sit in a biology class by seeing who can throw a ball the farthest? And sports scholarships don’t benefit the poor. Kids in poverty have the least access to organized athletics, fields, and equipment. In fact, evidence suggests that the most people who benefits from school sports are the kids with birthdays early in the school year. Since they are the oldest in their grades, they have the most developed motor skills and get the most attention from their coaches. That’s why they get better faster.

So, scholarships aren’t the reason for college athletics. Neither is access to pro-sports, since so few college players actually make it to professional leagues. College sports don’t support physical excellence either. They are inaccessible to most everyone, in fact, only a minority of recruited athletes ever play. Imagine if there were bench warmers in our composition classes: “I’m sorry, you can watch other students learn how to write essays, but you’re not good enough, so don’t even think about opening your word processor.” Finally, I suppose college sports could be for entertainment, but if so, why the prominence? There are so many other things the universities can offer communities, yet almost all of them struggle for the most minimal funding

In the end, I suggest that the only reason why schools have sports teams is for brand recognition. Athletes are human billboards that play the same role for their school that Ronald does for McDonald's, and like Ronald, their advertising success is completely irrelevant to the quality of the product being sold. A clown has nothing to do with how good the food is. His job is to get kids habituated to the McDonald’s brand. Similarly, sports teams have nothing to do with quality education; they’re just trying to suck in loyalists. But if that’s all they are, then the question is no longer why faculty and students should tolerate them, but why the student athletes aren’t getting paid for their work. If the students are shills, surely they deserve a commission. This, by the way, is where our guest comes in. He’s going to argue the same thing

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My point is simple. As we continue this discussion, I’d like us all to ask whether college sports make sense in the first place. I want us to focus on the question I posed earlier: what are college sports for? Without knowing its purpose, we can’t know whether it’s doing its job, and if we don’t know whether it’s doing its job, we can’t know whether it’s worth keeping. Frankly, if we can’t answer these questions, we’ve got no business asking any others."

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  1. College sports is government-subsidized entertainment. I think Rome had something like that?

  2. Ohio State's athletic department pays for itself and then this any more or less acceptable?

    I will say that we do have a very strong brand.

  3. Someone in Oxford once told me: that gets you the kind of students who later on get rich and can donate large amounts of money to the university, to which they feel attached because of the memories of sporting events. If you only had the kind of students who later become poor intellectuals, where would you get the rich alums from? (he was a poor intellectual, of course, and knew that I intended to become one as well...)

  4. I am looking to explore each sports activities advantages and see how they impact our way of life and how they give a better way of life for those from big ten schools who are regularly involved in these activities.

  5. College sports should be Soceer, Baseball

  6. Someone in Oxford once told me: that gets you the kind of students who later on get rich and can donate large amounts of money to the university, to which they feel attached because of the memories of sporting events.