"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Disgrace Of College Sports

One day while in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I visited the football stadium, the biggest college arena in the United States. It holds 110,000 people and is always filled to capacity. 

Michigan Stadium

There are five additional college stadiums which hold over 100,000 people – Penn State, Tennessee, Ohio State, Alabama, and Texas.

Of course Redskins fans are no slouches either, and fill FedEx field to its near 100,000 seat capacity as well; and the Wembley and Old Trafford soccer stadiums in the English Premier League get similar crowds.  There is a big difference between America and the rest of the world, however.  We are the only country with a big, lucrative, college sports business.

Fandom itself has been studied by many.  Why is it, researchers ask, do people form such passionate allegiances? What is so enduring about old school ties? The need for community, shared collective passion, common goals and commitment? Routine lives in machine shops, offices, and factory floors which need the explosive, brutal, orgiastic spectacle of football shared with 100,000 others? Whatever it is, college administrators understand it as well if not better than their Roman ancestors. They know that there is something brutal, passionate, and collective in us all.

So far, so good. If Roman citizens could not release their barbaric emotions in the coliseum, they might do so in the streets. While college sports indeed provide an outlet for raw, aggressive passions; and while men who rage on in Section 101 with their drunken buddies watching the Buckeyes win another are less likely to beat their wives or kick the dog, the inspiration behind today’s college administrators is far simpler to understand – money. 

At $100 a ticket, Michigan can take in $10 million a game during home events.  Add television revenues, the sale of team paraphernalia, money from parking, concessions, royalties and property rights, and college football is a big, big business. Not only does football bring in direct revenues to the school, but indirect ones as well since alumni are eager to open their wallets every year because of their happy affiliation with a great (football) university.  While Yale generates billions from Old Blues because of its reputation as one of the country’s top academic institutions, big state schools rely on their sports teams.  Both Harvard’s and Alabama’s colors are crimson, but that’s where the similarity ends. 

One might well ask what the problem is, since hundreds of millions of fans are happy, big universities are riding the backs of their sports teams to expand, renovate, and keep a loyal base, and the NFL has a minor league system for which it pays exactly nothing.   It is a perfect example of supply and demand.

Perhaps, if it weren’t for the niggling problem of the athletes.  Although many argue that playing football at a big state school is a boon to them since it provides a platform from which to launch their NFL careers and at least have a brush with academics, few players ever make the leap to the professional ranks, and most return to the impoverished neighborhoods from which they came with nothing more than gridiron memories. 

There has been considerable outrage expressed recently about this system.  There is absolutely nothing amateur at all about the system, they say, except for athletes who don’t get paid.

The idea of amateurism was born in Ancient Greece, where the ideal of athletic competition was begun.  The Greeks held games to honor the gods.  Athletic victory was not an end in itself, but only an expression of devotion and honor.

The ancient Greeks believed that the development of the mind, spirit, and body were linked, and that a well-educated person was instructed in all areas. An athletic victory was considered a credit to both the athlete's physical and moral virtues. Physical training was valued for its role in the development of such qualities as endurance and patience.

The motivation was the development of a disciplined, devout, virtuous citizen of the democracy. The philosophy was that the success of self-government (democracy) depended on the moral character of the citizenry. This was a large part of the motivation for the combined athletic/moral training (www.olympic-legacy.com)

This tradition of athleticism as a means to a higher end was embodied in the English ‘public’ school system and in the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The movie Chariots of Fire, a story about two champion runners from Cambridge who ran for England in the 1924 Olympics dramatized this spirit.  At the same time the film showed the cracks beginning to show in the amateur mold as one of the runners saw victory as a very personal, self-interested goal.

No one in America gives even a scant thought to the original spirit of amateurism – a selfless expression of God-given talent for the purpose of honoring Him; or, in the case of both Greek and English aristocrats, the perfection of the individual in preparation for service for the many.

Amateurism in the United States has absolutely nothing to do with those noble ideas. Those fans who watch college sports say that they like the ‘amateurism’ – i.e. the unformed, maturing, but unpracticed skills of the players; and the passionate youthful gamboling and enthusiasm that disappears in the professional ranks. Yet, this is a disingenuous if not na├»ve.  These modern Olympians are stumbling over each other for an NBA contract, not for an glory of God or country, and certainly not for any self-awareness or selfless motivation towards a higher good.

Let us, then, face facts. Amateurism died long ago; and all that is left is thousands of indentured servants striving for fame and fortune once their servitude is over. It is time to finally admit what everyone has known for decades – college athletics is not only a perverse recollection of our slave plantation past, but the very worst expression of greedy capitalism – an exploitation of labor by capital. If the One Percenters, Occupiers, and ‘Progressives’ ever wanted a demonic face on the economic system they despise, it is college athletics.

This all can be changed in one fell swoop. Jettison any last figment of any imaginary social conscience, and pay athletes to play football and basketball. They don’t have to attend any courses or be a part of the university.  They can have their own clubhouses and locker rooms, wear bling and drive fancy cars purchased with their own money.  They will proudly wear the uniforms of Alabama, Ohio State, or Tennessee as corporate logos.  They would be separate but equal members of the university.  No one would notice that they don’t attend classes, because most fans already assume that they take courses in ‘Communication’ and ‘Business’, are automatically passed, and are there only to play sports. 

Under this new system, millions of fans can still fill giant stadiums and drunkenly cheer on their teams.  Universities can make huge profits from ticket and concession sales. Lucrative NFL contractual relationships with both athletes and schools can be legitimized and open.  Fans’ allegiances to their alma maters can continue and alumni donations will always be generous.  And finally, athletes who attending school only to play sports will be justly and fairly compensated.

It is far too late to lament the demise of amateurism in America.  It has been dead and gone for a long time.  America is one, big, giant corporation.  It is time to recognize it and move on.

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