Growing up in rural Nebraska, I lived and died by the prospects of the Cornhuskers. When they went through years of getting shellacked and embarrassed in bowl games, I felt real, despairing pain. I attended their famous 1987 showdown with Oklahoma, and the 'Huskers' loss that day ripped out my twelve year old heart. When they won national championships after the 1994, 1995, and 1997 seasons, I felt true joy, akin to that of a pilgrim finally reaching a holy site. Like any true believer, I tried to downplay the less savory aspects of my faith. For example, in 1995 when star running back Lawrence Philips was merely suspended -not kicked off the team- for violently assaulting his ex-girlfriend, I felt a twinge of uneasiness and thought the decision was wrong, but managed to shrug it off and still celebrated when Philips returned for the Fiesta Bowl and helped the Huskers cream Florida. Later on, when I was a graduate student at Big Ten University, I went to football games and watched as many of the team's basketball games as possible. This despite knowing from friends who had some players as students, that some of them should have been academically ineligible to play, but either through manipulation or pressure, still got to take the court. Those facts faded from my mind when I celebrated my team's amazing comeback victory to get them into the Final Four.
I'd known for a long time that big-time college sports were corrupt and riven with the rankest hypocrisy, but somehow managed to compartmentalize that knowledge. Perhaps I saw it as a small price to pay for all the pageantry, drama, excitement, and fun college sports provide. Is there any weekend in sports more captivating than the NCAA basketball tournament's opening? Are there any rivalries in all of American sport to rival Auburn versus Alabama, Michigan versus Ohio State, and Texas versus Oklahoma? These things are often wonderful things to behold, but they are built upon a foundation of lies and corruption, and have a parasitical relationship with America's struggling universities. Finally, after years of trying not to think about the implications of big-time college athletics or let its reality mess with my ideals, my absolute disgust and moral conscience has triumphed. I only wish it hadn't taken so long.
The NCAA is famously hypocritical and corrupt. It talks about the ideal of the "student athlete" while generating millions of dollars for coaches, sportswear companies, leaders of "non-profit" bowl games and other assorted business types who benefit from the free labor on the field and on the court. Recently it has allowed the creation of "superconferences" whose alignments have been determined by TV revenue, not geography. These new conferences will necessitate longer travel times, and thus more missed classes by "student athletes." These same "student athletes" often suffer from neglected education and low graduation rates. The vast majority do not have professional careers waiting for them, and many are simply tossed on the trash heap once their playing careers are over. (I should note that I have had many great student athletes in my classes over the years, so I am not saying that athletes are necessarily bad students. However, I can say without hesitation that sports commitments make studies difficult for most of these students, and many of them were the absolute worst I ever had.)
Among those in the know, there's a consensus that every major basketball and football program cheats to a greater or lesser extent. A recent study found that HALF of all big-time athletic programs had been punished by the NCAA in the last decade. The tacit acceptance of this fact might be the reason why violators of the rules are allowed to get lucrative coaching jobs at other universities despite their past malfeasance. In a recent example, Bruce Pearl, who just got fired from coaching Tennessee's basketball team for committing multiple major violations, fully expects to get hired somewhere else! The pretense that college sports are being regulated in any meaningful way is a joke.
Athletic programs, in my experience, exist outside of the university community at large. There certainly seems to be a mentality within these programs, and certainly among the coaches, that they are above the law and operate outside of university scrutiny. The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State is proof positive in case you needed it. I also think of Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech football coach who locked a player with a concussion in a closet, has not only had the goal to sue Tech for wrongful firing, but has also been rewarded with a two million dollar a year contract with Washington State.
All of these things have nagged at me for years, but my true breaking point didn't come until I connected college athletics to the larger problems universities are facing. Those of you who have been reading this job are aware of my alarm and anger at the continued degradation of our universities and their misplaced priorities. For a long time, like a lot of other academics, I viewed the athletic department as almost a separate appendage of the university, a wholly different world. My main contact came in the form of queries from officials in that department over the grades of student athletes, which I resented for giving athletes special status. Still, it didn't really bother me all that much until I noticed that during the major cuts at all of the universities where I studied or worked over the last ten years, humanities departments were more likely to be cut than anything related to athletics. In my last job this was most clear. When the president of East Texas University gave his annual address, he let the faculty know that we could not expect a merit pay increase in the coming year, and that no promises could be made in regards to job cuts. In the same speech, he got very excited by a new purple beacon (school's color) that would be lit up to signal victories by the football and basketball teams and be seen all across the town, replacing the measly purple light that had been on top of a recently demolished dormitory. Keep in mind, this is not taking place at a big-time sports university, but a regional state university struggling with its finances. As if to confirm these misbegotten priorities, a new student recruiting film gave the school's football traditions more air time than its academic programs.
Murray Sperber memorably termed the college athletics "beer and circus," referring to them as a way to distract students from the degradation of their education. A large number of students are much less interested in college as an educational opportunity than as an experience. Athletics is one of the key components of the "college experience," as much as parties, luxury dorms, and the shiny new student centers and gyms that universities are building to compete for those students who seek it. At big time sports schools, students are more willing to march to protect millionaire misbehaving coaches rather than to protest their increased tuition and the drastic cuts to their education. Just witness the students who took to the streets to support child-molestation enabler Joe Paterno and the physically abusive Bobby Knight. The support of "beer and circus" has seemingly eclipsed the educational mission of so many institutions of higher learning.
Affordable public higher education is a in life-or-death situation, perilously close to extinction. That several universities have cut philosophy and language programs, yet retain football teams, is perhaps the greatest piece of evidence for our society's current insanity. I just can't go on enjoying college football and basketball, pretending that these things aren't a big part of what's killing universities. Like any other bad habit, I feel it's time to give it up.