Tuesday, September 20, 2011

O-H-... N-O!!!

Brutus Buckeye after the scandal
Normally, I defer to people who are more knowledgeable about sports than I am; but there are a few things that need to be said about Ohio State football that have broader implications.

I live in Columbus. It is a clean, cosmopolitan, and remarkably nice city to live in. Living anywhere comes at a price -- and the price for living in Columbus is three to four months of living with "Buckeye Fever," including the mandatory Hate Michigan Week in November. Fanatical support for Ohio State is considered a civic duty at this time of year, even if you have no connection to the university.

Being a life-long Ohioan, I do wear scarlet and gray with appropriate symbolism on occasion, and want Ohio State to have a successful season. However, this season begins with a pall over it in the wake of the firing resignation of coach Jim Tressel, and the suspensions of several of the players for accepting gifts and selling items. There is considerable doubt that Ohio State will even mount a winning season this year, having a new coach and barely defeating the University of Toledo Sept. 10.

The problem with college football is not Jim Tressel or Terrelle Pryor, or any of the players. The problem is that the system itself is fundamentally hypocritical and corrupt. On the one hand, the National Collegiate Athletic Association trumpets that it stands for the "amateurism" of the college athlete (supported by television ads showing the academic prowess of those who play sports other than football). On the other, there is no question that there is a great deal of money involved in TV contracts, gate receipts, and product placement.

Taylor Branch, at The Atlantic, likens this system to colonialism:

But after an inquiry that took me into locker rooms and ivory towers across the country, I have come to believe that sentiment blinds us to what’s before our eyes. Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes. 
Money is unquestionably a corrupting influence in college athletics; but I am not sure that the problem is best solved simply by giving the players a stipend. If handled in the same way as payments made to graduate students for serving as teaching assistants, I have no real objection to giving a stipend to college athletes; but the problem really runs much deeper than that.

We (and yes, I mean we, the spectators, alumni, and taxpayers) have allowed the athletic* tail to wag the education dog. The purpose of colleges and universities is to provide an advanced education. When athletics distracts from that mission (as it clearly has at Ohio State and many other Division I schools), it is the duty of the faculty and trustees to reassert control, as the faculty did in a rather bizarre way in 1961, when they refused permission for the Buckeyes to play in the January 1, 1962, Rose Bowl:
Within faculty circles, the question of whether Ohio State should participate in the Rose Bowl had been festering for several years. Faculty members questioned the commercial aspects of big-time football. They were concerned that OSU football overshadowed the university’s reputation as a center of learning.  To many, the Rose Bowl contributed to an overemphasis in athletics. Ohio State utilized the quarter system, making it difficult for Rose Bowl-bound students to attend classes by January 2. ...

Those opposed to the trip to California were uneasy about the public image OSU portrayed as an “athletic factory”; academic disruptions were prominent in the 1958 Rose Bowl excursion; there was concern that Buckeye boosters were really in control of athletic policy; and favoritism toward football players would occur.**
Fifty years later, the faculty's concerns are still valid; though their remedy in this instance caused more trouble than it was worth.

The solution is to impose strict academic standards on college athletes; at minimum, the same standards that apply to other students, including minimum course loads and grade point averages. Professors enforcing those standards on players in their classes should receive the complete support of the faculty, administration, and trustees. Students who can stand up academically can play. They can receive scholarships, and maybe a stipend; but academics will be first and foremost.

Do not tell me it cannot be done. Division III schools (including my alma mater, #9 Ohio Northern) have done this successfully for years -- and the football is just as exciting without the glitz.***

* In many schools, basketball is just as culpable.
** James E. Odenkirk, "The Eighth Wonder of the World: Ohio State's Rejection of a Rose Bowl Bid in 1961," Journal of Sport History 34 (Fall 2007), 389-395.
*** And just to rub salt into the wound, I can go to Ohio Northern and pay the same price for a football ticket as I did when I was a student 40 years ago ... $4.00.

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