From a Wolverine: The Case for College Sports

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Taylor Branch delivered the roundhouse punch to the NCAA and its hypocrisy/standards last year in our pages. Louis Freeh et al delivered a damning judgment on Joe Paterno's Penn State earlier this week. Yesterday I quoted a Harvard graduate on the Ivy League's problems in the same regard.

A reader writes in to make the contrary case, on the character-building traits of college sports etc. I can imagine the followup arguments pro and con and won't keep this going indefinitely, but in fairness here is the other side.

Wolverine.jpgAfter reading the note from your Harvard alum, I felt it's important to ask what the value of higher education is? I'm an alum of Michigan-a very good school with a very good football program. In 1997, we won a national championship in football, and had the Heisman Trophy winner. Obviously many of the members of that team went on to have long, successful NFL careers. But what of the majority of the players who ended up not going on to the NFL?

It's only one year from one school (and after Penn State, I hesitate to point our it's known for doing things "the right way,") but the vast majority of those players have gone on to successful careers. Many of them owned their own businesses. All had jobs. I'll try to find the link on MGoBlog tomorrow*, but a Michigan blogger caught up with those players around 2007 and found out that they were all doing all right - more than all right, actually.

Yale Football 1879 2.jpgNow again, this is a small sample size - but usually folks who deride the term "student athlete" use anecdotal evidence, as does your Harvard alum. A sample size of one is stronger than that. And again, Michigan is known for doing things "right," and is also a good academic school with a strong football program. But then, so are Texas, USC, Georgia Tech, Stanford and Notre Dame.

In this country, as in most of the world, universities are used to turn boys and girls into future leaders. They evaluate their recruits mostly by grade point averages and standardized tests, the latter of which many educators feel is a poor way to measure their students. A minority are let in with lower GPAs because they demonstrate excellence in another realm - arts, music, and yes, sports.

And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with opening up opportunities to kids who wouldn't otherwise have them because they demonstrate excellence differently than the traditional way? Maybe it's because Harvard, and Michigan, do actually give a damn at giving these kids a chance, both on the field and in the classroom? After all, Michael Oher [from Michael Lewis's The Blind Side] ended up as a valedictorian in his class, after barely qualifying for school in the first place.

In another country, these same kids would get stuck in some "minor leagues" for a few years before finding out that they weren't going to ever cut it in the big leagues. And then they have to decide what's next. Here? They go to college, get an education while playing ball, learn more about teamwork, leadership, and dealing with success and failure. And then they get a degree and decide what to do next. I imagine the reason they recruit those non-revenue sports in schools like Harvard is to give excellence an opportunity to develop in the collegiate environment. And they teach them to become future leaders, in and off the field.

Isn't that the point of an education?

Hail! To the Victors, Valiant!

* He sent a followup note with more data:

Here's the link to the Michigan blog that found followups on the 1997 team:

http://mgoblog.com/content/destroy-harbaugh

It was made after Jim Harbaugh called out his alma mater. We may call ourselves classy college football fans - but we're still college football fans.
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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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