Sports

How Elite Athletics Can Undermine Academic Values and Institutions

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You’ve read the stories. Maybe even in your local paper.

There are no shortages of accounts of the never-ending “arms race” in college athletics for programs to build palatial offices, stadiums or practice facilities. And, true to form, many of the priorities displayed by our colleges and universities filter down to influence attitudes and policies at the high school level. The result is that those attitudes and examples far too often influence local school board decisions to appropriate millions of dollars to install an artificial turf football field, a new scoreboard or to upgrade locker rooms. Simply consider the price tag of the McKinney Independent School District’s (located outside of Dallas) 12,000 seat football stadium: $70 million. That’s not quite as much as the 12,000 seat stadium built by the Katy ISD, located outside of Houston: $72 million.  These stadiums are paid with taxpayer funds. Often, these appropriations are made while music, arts or other academic programs are being cut or eliminated.

It seems as if we can always find some extra money to provide the very best athletics facilities, regardless of how such decisions impact a school’s broader, long-term academic culture and educational environment. We seem to believe that our athletes deserve the very best in coaching, training equipment and facilities. But appropriating the necessary resources to have very best for our artists, musicians, actors and scientists? Not so much.

One of the primary justifications for such investment priorities is that sports is the “front porch” of the educational institution. The logic is that it is important that your front porch be well-kept and up to date as it not only is a reflection on the institution as a whole, but serves to supplement and positively contribute to the academic mission of the institution.

Because of the tremendous visibility and influence of school athletic programs, their impact on the values of, and public attitudes toward, our schools, colleges and universities is enormous. Elite interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics have become so entrenched within the educational system that it is difficult to imagine our schools and universities without them; athletics and education are inseparably linked, feeding off each other, all for the greater good of the institution.

However, if we take a closer and more critical look at athletics’ impact on our intellectual values and educational institutions, the reality suggests otherwise. As school and college sport in America has grown in popularity, its’ relationship to education has become skewed. Rather than strengthening our educational values and supplementing the missions of our educational institutions, elite, school based organized athletics has come to actually undermine them. Despite our refusal to acknowledge it, there is a fundamental inconsistency in the relationship between athletics and education. Simply put, the forces that drive athletics and those that should guide educational policy are, for the most part, diametrically opposed.

At the core of this conflicted relationship, is the fact that coaches are driven to win games. Coaches rationalize their intense drive by indicating that if they do not win, they will be fired. While that may be true to varying degrees, the fact is, coaches coach because they are highly competitive with a tremendous desire to win. Athletic administrators, most of whom are ex-athletes or coaches with the same type of competitive drive, must help their coaches win games to fill stadiums to generate revenue to pay for the expense of the program or team. If the athletic administrator does not meet budget, he or she will soon be out of a job. Such goals are short term -- to win next week’s game to generate revenue to pour back into the program to help win the following week’s game.

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The goal of our educational institutions is to prepare individuals to be productive citizens for the rest of their lives and, in doing so, keep our nation a vibrant and strong world power. As is always the case when balancing short and long term goals, conflicts arise. These inherent conflicts have nothing to do with "good guys" versus "bad guys"; they are simply the realities of two very different cultures. There is not a coach in the country, at any level, who does not want every one of their athletes to be successful in life after their playing days are over. The problem, however, is that for too many communities and coaches, it eventually comes back to winning games. Thus, it is easy to understand why coaches and athletic administrators are primarily interested in maximizing athletic performance. In short, the long-term academic interests, goals and priorities of our educational institutions are in direct conflict with the highly competitive, short-term, economically driven interests of the athletic establishment.

The extent to which organized sport subverts our nation’s educational interests is numerous. At the high school level, it is the passing of athletes who have not mastered the required work. The prevailing notion is that it is acceptable if Johnny can’t read as long as he can play. Coaches plead the case of " a good kid, whose only chance at a better life is through an athletic scholarship and he won’t be eligible for that scholarship unless he passes this course." Far too often, the teacher or principal complies, not wanting to be responsible for denying a youngster his "only chance". Unfortunately, everyone knows -- classmates, parents, coaches, teachers, and Johnny himself -- that Johnny did not deserve to pass. The affect on the academic credibility of the institution is enormous. Such acts, and they are far from isolated, serve to cheapen the value and standing of education in our communities.

This academic fraud is perpetuated when our institutions of higher learning spend significant resources recruiting and later admitting Johnny, despite the fact that he is unqualified to perform college work and unlikely to graduate. Once the "student-athlete" is enrolled, it becomes all too clear that the primary reason for being at college is to produce on the fields of play. All else -- education, social life, and personal development -- occupies a distant place on the list of priorities for what in reality is an "athlete-student". All this in the name of "educational opportunity". All at the expense of academic integrity.

Athletics undercuts the integrity of our academic institutions in other ways. The obscenely large salaries universities pay their football and basketball coaches is an example of institutional priorities that are wildly out of balance. It is not uncommon for these coaches to not only make more money than the university president but in 39 of our 50 states the highest paid public employee is a college football or basketball coach. Beyond this warped salary structure rests the issue of the “Godlike” status that is bestowed upon popular coaches; a status that is far out of proportion to their contribution to positive academic outcomes. What sort of message does this send about community and educational priorities?

            In short, we have come to glorify a culture within our educational system that elevates athletics, often at the expense of academic excellence. It’s a culture that accepts the notion that it is an educational institution’s responsibility to provide the very best in athletic facilities, coaching, and support so elite athletes have every opportunity to develop their athletic abilities to the fullest. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to provide the resources and support to help an individual develop fully as an athlete, when those purposes begin to undermine the most fundamental, educational purpose of our schools and universities, we, as a society, pay a steep price.

            Our future as a nation depends upon having a strong educational system that prepares our children to become great thinkers, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs rather than quarterbacks and point guards. The fact is, interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic programs provide the clearest and cleanest window through which the American public views our educational system.  That being the case, it is absolutely critical that the fundamental message projected through that window is a message that reinforces the primacy of the value and importance of education. If our educational leaders do not forcefully stand up and claim, not simply in words, but in deeds, that educational integrity and academic excellence is far more important than athletic glory, then who will?


March Madness and the Couch Potato Athlete

When I feel athletic, I go to a sports bar.
— Paul Clisera

In the coming weeks, America will be overcome by “madness”. Throughout the country, sports fans, both casual and hard-core, will focus their attention on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In bars and bakeries, at the dinner table and over phone lines, people catch the madness. Office pools are organized and parties are thrown as television screens everywhere are tuned to "The Big Dance", as teams from Boise to Bloomington, Athens, Georgia to Athens, Ohio and New York to New Mexico compete for the national championship. Over three consecutive weekends, the original field of 68 teams is whittled down to one, crowned NCAA National Champion the Monday evening following Final Four Weekend.

Dubbed “March Madness” for the unpredictable nature of the contests as well as its’ catchy commercial ring, it is the perfect television event. Longer than the Super Bowl’s one day, one game extravaganza, shorter than the three month marathons that are the NBA and NHL playoffs, and more inclusive than the World Series, where only two cities are represented, it has captivated our nation’s televised sports consciousness as no other event. But rather than the unpredictable nature of the games or its’ commercial appeal, the term "March Madness" is appropriate for another reason; everyone is watching it. If everyone is watching, no one is participating. Instead, fans are sitting in front of the television set stuffing themselves with junk food and beer, watching what amounts to a contest between teenagers who are billed as students but are, in reality, paid mercenaries.

March Madness is also significant because it is the best example of the evolution in the way we "participate" in sports. This shift is problematic because our heavy cultural investment in sport is justified largely upon the belief that it promotes a healthy lifestyle. Those who regularly exercise and participate in sports are more likely to live a longer and healthier life. The Greek ideal of sound body, sound mind is, in fact, sound, as medical research on this claim is irrefutable. Unfortunately, March Madness has little to do with this Greek ideal. To the contrary, March Madness encourages behavior that has a negative impact on physical health.

Before televised sports, if a parent wanted to spend a "sporting moment" with their child, they likely would have gone to the backyard and played catch. Today, it is just as likely that such moments will be spent watching one of the hundreds of televised sporting events each week. Despite claims of the positive affect on the health of our populace, organized sport in America has become more about watching elite athletes perform rather than being active yourself; as likely to be associated with lying on the couch with a six-pack of beer than working up a sweat through vigorous exercise. As sport has grown in popularity, more people are sitting idly, watching the athleticism of the few. Television has lured us from the playing fields to the stands thus changing the idea of what it means to “participate” in sports. Rather than being in the middle of the action, we observe from afar. Meanwhile, our nation becomes more obese.

There is however, value in watching sports, the most obvious of which is that it is an escape from the ordinary. Watching sports can also be spiritually exhilarating, drawing us together and making us feel that we are a part of a larger force -- a team. Whether pulling for your city’s professional football team in the Super Bowl or your alma maters’ basketball team in the Final Four, such moments allow us to be a part of something much larger than ourselves and to connect with others.

But there are also significant disadvantages to spectatorship as articulated by James Michener in his 1976 book, Sports in America:

“The disadvantages of mere spectatorship are numerous and compelling. The health of the inactive watcher, whether in a stadium or before a television, suffers. He tends to accumulate tensions that are not discharged. While sitting and watching he contributes nothing to the common good and does not do those constructive things he might otherwise have done. Passiveness in sports encourages passiveness in social life and in politics. The mere spectator never shares in the positive rewards of performance and competition. Watching tennis at age fifty is infinitely less productive than playing it. The mere spectator fails to develop whatever innate talents he has and cheats himself of sport’s true joys.” (Michener, 1976, p. 86)

With the explosion of television coverage of sports, this question is even more relevant than when Michener commented on it in 1976. What price are we paying for our shift from active participation to passive consumption of sport?

The distortion of the value and purpose of sport in our culture has lead to the evolution of a sports system that is badly out of step with our nation’s health needs. Rather than maximizing opportunities to become involved in and reap the personal and health benefits of organized athletics, our current system weeds out, at an earlier and earlier age, everyone but those who display extraordinary potential.

In promoting this "elitist" structure, we have failed to advance the idea that sport for pure exercise is positive, fun, and healthy. Rather, athletics must be about winning and developing future all-stars and pros. If we believe sport to be a character building activity, an activity that prepares youth for adulthood and instills in them important values and discipline, why is our system of organized athletics not structured to encourage maximum participation?

Even the case for the positive health benefits of participation in competitive athletics may not be as clear-cut as it seems. While participation in elite, organized sport requires exercise, it is anything but moderate. In far too many cases, the physical demands and expectations required of competitive athletics borders on abuse. For example, incidences of “overuse” injuries in young athletes are increasing due to pressure to specialize in a particular sport and commit to year-round training at young ages. Because the rewards for winning -- wealth, notoriety, adulation, and fame -- have become so great, athletes and even their parents are more than willing to place the athlete’s lifelong physical health at risk for these immediate and fleeting rewards. Coaches, chasing the same rewards, do nothing to dissuade the athlete from doing so.

For sport to fully maximize its potential to positively affect the health and fitness of our populace, its focus should be upon involving the maximum number of participants. Unfortunately, in our current system an increasingly large commitment of money, time, effort, and emotion is heaped upon only those athletes who might have the potential to play major college or professional sports. From a public health standpoint, that is madness.

While we can certainly enjoy watching March Madness, to fully leverage sports’ potential health benefits, we must begin playing more and watching less.

America’s Reassessment of Football: Another Brick in the Wall

Each year, the NFL goes about the business of drafting college players. Before draft day, players attend the NFL “combine” in Indianapolis where they are measured poked, interviewed and tested.  This all leads to the draft itself when a large chunk of the sports world follows with intense interest, which teams select which players. 

Media coverage of the draft generally focuses on two broad themes. The first are the rags to riches stories of the young men who have achieved their lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. These stories are inspiring and play into the NFL’s desired narrative of providing tremendous opportunity for fame and fortune. Everyone loves a story of an undersized underdog who “makes it” or the young man from a background of poverty striking it rich, often against all odds. It is a publicist’s dream. It’s compelling entertainment.  After all, the NFL is, at its’ core, “sportainment” – sports as entertainment. To that end, the league views the entire draft process as another advertising, branding and marketing opportunity. 

The second area of focus is on the winners and losers of the draft. Analysts debate and rate which teams improved their rosters with these narratives being closely followed by millions of fans. It is exciting to contemplate the possibilities of new players being added to the roster to improve their team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl.

Traditionally, media coverage of the draft can best be described as factual, breathless and fawning. Factual, in the reporting of the specifics of who drafts who and when. Breathless as in media members and analysts acting as if the NFL Draft is more important than world peace. And fawning, in our general tendency to genuflect and bow at the feet of athletes, coaches and sports figures and moguls.

But there was a slight difference in the coverage of this year’s draft. Specifically, an alternative narrative that seemed to be bubbling up just below the surface. While still overwhelmingly factual, breathless and fawning, there was a hint of social commentary, critical analysis and introspection. Specifically, that the institution of American football, with the NFL at its apex, is, at its core, a “meat market”.

The NFL a meat market? Astonishing! Of course, the NFL is a meat market! The NFL is a cold, hard business, plain and simple.

Clearly, the notion that the NFL is a business is certainly not news. And the fact is, there’s nothing wrong with the NFL being a business. Professional sports is the most “honest” form of sports that exists. Everyone knows the score. The players are all adults who know the risks, realities and rewards of the profession. Their job is to make as much money as possible while their bodies hold up or before the coach taps them on the shoulder to tell them they are no longer needed because they no longer produce enough for the team.

The goal of the owners and coaches is to squeeze as much production out of their “assets” (players) as possible. This is exemplified by the fact that owners can deduct players as a “depreciable asset” just like a machine in a factory.

The only difference between this system and an outright plantation system is that the “assets” are being paid handsomely. So let’s get over it.

Yes, the NFL is a meat market. And yes, players are simply cogs in a vast machine. No surprise there.

That said, there was something significant about the increased attention to this aspect of the realities of professional football and the NFL. While it may have only been a scattered few articles and certainly not a groundswell of coverage and attention, the fact is, the issue was raised and covered. It represents another level of public awareness and introspection regarding football’s role in our society.  More people are beginning to ask questions and critically assess the violent nature of football and their personal and our societal relationship to it.

From concerns about brain trauma to football’s culture of violence in general and towards women in particular to the enormous amount of time, energy and resources that are allocated to support it in our schools, people are beginning to ask more questions.  From parents being more hesitant to allow their children to play the game to decreasing television ratings, football as an American institution is receiving increasing scrutiny.

Granted, a few articles and some increased attention and critical analysis of the NFL as a “meat market”, in and of itself, will not bring the NFL to its knees.  But make no mistake, slowly and surely, things are changing as it relates to the role, influence and impact of football in our society.  Consider it another brick in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society. Football is facing growing public scrutiny that will continue to increase.

And it should.

Sport as a Tool for Civil Rights: You Can’t Have it Both Ways

One of the more significant current sports stories relates to the declining number of subscribers to ESPN. The main thrust of the coverage of this decline has centered on the amount of television rights fees that sports leagues and college networks will be able to generate. Make no mistake, that impact will be significant as fewer subscribers translates into lower rights fees. 

But there is another story relating to this decline that bears mentioning. Specifically, the two primary reasons that have been given for the decline. The first is that consumption and viewing habits of consumers have been changing with increased ability to “slim down” cable packages or to simply “cut the cord” of cable completely. But it is the second reason that is the subject of this essay. Specifically, the claim that ESPN has been drifting towards a much more liberal bias in its’ reporting and features and, as a result of today’s highly polarized political climate, has been driving conservative viewers away.

Two examples in particular have been cited as proof of ESPN’s increasingly liberal bias. The first was the extensive coverage the network gave to San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s display of solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement by kneeling during the national anthem. The second was a nod to transgender rights by awarding its’  “Courage” award to Caitlyn Jenner at its annual ESPY Awards. Critics cried, “Sports should be a “safe zone” from politics and social issues.  I simply want to watch the games and not be bombarded with social commentary.”

But you can’t have it both ways. That horse left the barn decades ago. One of the most important, powerful and fundamental justifications for our society’s tremendous investment in sports is precisely because it has the potential to break down barriers and push for social change and civil rights. The fact is, using sports as a vehicle to highlight civil and human rights issues is as much a part of sports as the touchdown, home run or slam-dunk.

Sports have long been looked to as a powerful example for social change, particularly as it relates to diversity and civil rights. The fundamental principles that drive progress in these areas are fairness, tolerance, cooperation and equal opportunity.  Sports is a wonderfully effective platform through which these principles can be demonstrated.

One of the most important and significant events in the history of the struggle for civil rights was Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During a time when blacks were considered, to put it mildly, second-class citizens by many and, more bluntly, less than human by others, the sight of Robinson playing alongside white teammates, all on equal footing on the field, was both instructional and inspirational.

Sports is an enterprise where race, creed and background have, for the most part, little impact on achievement and opportunity, at least compared to many other industries and enterprises. Coaches are, above all, equal opportunity “employers” interested not in the color of a wide receiver’s skin but in whether that player is able to contribute to the team’s success on the field. Or, to put it in a civil rights context, to play off the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, coaches do not judge players by the color of their skin, but by the content of their “game”. Coaches play the best players regardless of color or creed because they want to win above all else.  Their jobs and livelihoods depend on it.

Further, athletes themselves, for the most part, are unusually tolerant and accepting of other athletes. Like coaches, athletes want to win, and a player’s color or background doesn’t make a difference if he can help in achieving that result.

The sight of athletes working together toward a common goal, sharing in the sweat, pain and sacrifice, provides a powerful example of the possibilities for tolerance, diversity and integration. It’s a vivid display of how people, regardless of background, can work together to accomplish impressive things. Seeing black athletes perform on equal footing with their white teammates sparked a light that suggested the possibility that the same could be done in many other occupations and situations.  A lot of the progress we have made as a society, whether in business or every day life, has to do with examples of racial tolerance and acceptance demonstrated through sports. When the public sees athletes working together successfully, it provides an example for others to emulate.

While there are many things about organized, elite athletics in America that are twisted and out of perspective, sports’ power and potential to advance civil and human rights issues is not one of them. Sports’ fundamental value of fair play and equal opportunity parallels the fundamental values and principles of civil and human rights. The potential to highlight and advance these values may be sports’ most important and greatest strength.

In short, you can’t get away from sports being used as a platform for civil and human rights.

That said, you can’t on one hand justify our tremendous investment in sports as an educational and character building activity and laud it’s power to advance civil and human rights when the human rights issue is one you believe in and are committed to, but then claim that sports should be “value free” when the civil rights being advocated for, in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, transgender rights, and Colin Kaepernick, in supporting Black Lives Matter, happens to be a civil right that you may not believe in.

You can’t have it both ways. A civil right is a civil right.

So feel free to cancel your ESPN subscription. But don’t whine about the need for sports to be a “safe zone” from highlighting civil and human rights issues. Civil and human rights are all about fair play and equal opportunity. The concept of fair play and equal opportunity is sports’ most powerful and important value and characteristic. It’s part of sports’ DNA.

And thank goodness for that.