College Sports: The Horse Feathers Factor

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For a momentary diversion from politics, beer, global disaster, and China, let's round out a discussion thread from last week.

As a reminder: a Harvard alum said that things were hideous at Penn State but wouldn't bear close scrutiny at a lot of other places too. Then a Michigan alum replied that the college-sports spirit actually did more good than harm.

Final round. A scientist at a famous football school (OK, it's OU) writes:

Thumbnail image for oklahoma-sooners-wagon.jpgAs a college professor,and a football fan, I am hugely ambivalent about college sports. Student athletes include some of the best time managers and most mature students for their age. But there are also those that see classwork only as a necessary evil while they pursue their dream of excelling in sport. Most, especially those in money-making sports, see the hypocrisy of the word "student athlete", where graduation rates of basketball players and football players, even with a huge infrastructure meant to help them along, is shamefully low.

It seems the best solution, in lieu of flat out payment, is to guarantee athletes working for the university, or the family members, an additional 2-4 years of free education (an increasingly pricey prize) when they choose to devote their time to study.

From another Wolverine:

Although this might make me a heretic as a Michigan alum, the whole build up about "Michigan Men" and athletics is a giant facade. Like every other school, the middle-aged men at top of the athletic department have no problems collecting their six- and seven-figure salaries while the "student" athletes got paid nothing (stuck subsidizing a bunch of other sports played by rich kids) and got no real education.

The Ann Arbor News conducted an in-depth investigation a few years ago dismantling the idea that the school's image matches reality. The outrage from the fans directed at the newspaper was embarrassing--like most fans, they care about their own enjoyment, not the well-being of the kids.

If you want further proof about the rot of big-time athletics, talk to James Duderstadt--a former UM President!--that has written an entire book about the invidious commercialization of college sports.

I have no problem opening up opportunities to those that otherwise wouldn't have them--although why they should go to athletes rather than poor math geniuses or artists I don't know--but we should make sure our schools actually fulfill their duty to those kids. I'm not sure Michigan does that any better than any other school, regardless of what the reputation of the "leaders and best" says.

The indecipherability of college sports:

I'm a sports fan, but ... I have zero interest in collegiate sports - I don't know who any of the players are, there are too many leagues and conferences and they rank them in a bizarre subjective fashion I find completely corrupt. So I enjoy professional sports, and literally pay no attention to the college games.

So to me, with no investment in the sports side, it's simple to just think "this isn't about sports, this was a crime, a horrific crime that damaged a bunch of kids, taking advantage of their most vulnerable traits for a kind of sick predatory satisfaction.  It is not about college, not about sports, it is about violent crime".

So while I can see how being deeply invested in the concept of college sports would allow a human to have a kind of a "yeah, but..." moment, but just as how a commitment to an ideology can bring people to believe blatant lies, I have to think that this smacks of willfully blurred vision.  No matter what, or how much, good school sports have done, they were also the vehicle for locating and exploiting vulnerable kids, and too many people decided to remain silent in order to protect the "integrity of the institution".

Nope.  Ask anybody who doesn't care one way or another about college sports, and they're going to be unanimous that the entire structure has the appearance of being corrupt and unhealthy...
Thumbnail image for marx brothers horse feathers 6.jpg

And finally, the Darwin/Huxley angle:

No big surprise that even prestige colleges are obsessed with sports; thus was it ever. Remember the 1932 Marx Brothers' film Horse Feathers? Groucho Marx, (playing Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of Huxley College) was pondering how to buy shamateur football players in order to defeat arch-rival Darwin College.
 
Groucho: Where would we be without football? Have we got a stadium?
Trustees: Yes!
Groucho: Have we got a college?
Trustees: Yes!
Groucho: Well, we can't support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
Trustees: But, Professor, where will the students sleep?
Groucho: Where they always sleep, in the classroom!
 
Obsession with sports has been an American fixture at least since the days of Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen. I haven't been to Europe for years, but I doubt there are many Frenchmen with a decal on the back window of their Peugeot that proclaims "Sorbonne" or "Ecole Polytechnique." Likewise you could go a long time, I'll bet, before you encountered a German wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Max-Planck-Institut" or "Göttingen." So who is the outlier, us or the rest of the world?

American exceptionalism: undiminished even now. Thanks to all.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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