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.
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?
Sometimes you can repeat a phrase or articulate a theory or belief so often that it begins to become simply background noise or, if repeated enough, irrelevant. I am referring to my ongoing use of the metaphor, “another brick in the wall” as it relates to the future of tackle football in America. It seems as if no sooner do I write an essay identifying a trend or incident that, coupled with the larger trends of declining television viewership, declining numbers of participants at the youth league level, increased public and media scrutiny, contributes to the steady, drip-by-drip and brick-by-brick evolution of our society’s relationship with the sport of tackle football.
These past few weeks offered another couple of bricks to add to the building of that wall. We’re accumulating so many bricks that we’ll soon have enough left over to “build that wall” on our Southern border. In fact, I’m sure Mexico will appreciate those excess bricks as it will reduce their building costs when they pay for it.
The addition of these bricks in the wall relate to two recent events that, once again, demonstrate how the culture surrounding the sport of football continues to reveal itself to be increasingly out of touch with rapidly changing American values, attitudes and norms. It is significant that the culture surrounding the game and its coaches is receiving such increased scrutiny as it is safe to say that for far too long, the football community has gotten a relatively free pass relating to the negative impact and influences of the culture surrounding the game.
Media and academic critics have long questioned certain aspects of that culture as it relates to the brutal nature of the game, its’ anti-intellectualism, the corrupting influence of the win at any cost culture and the sense of entitlement that athletes and star coaches often exhibit. But for the most part, the scandals that have lead to increased scrutiny in these areas and the attention paid to them, generally fizzles out over time and we find ourselves resorting to our traditional treatment of coaches and programs as being too important and too big to seriously challenge.
But like a wall that becomes stronger as more bricks are added, increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny. As the light of sunshine begins to spread wider and penetrate deeper into the culture of football, additional areas of concern begin to reveal themselves.
The first is the case of Ohio State University where the university suspended its football coach, Urban Meyer, for three games – a mere slap on the wrist – after he apparently lied about and deleted emails relating to his mishandling of domestic violence allegations against one of his assistant coaches. There was a day when there would be little initial scrutiny, much less dogged follow-up and investigation, into issues at the intersection of the culture of football and domestic violence. For far too long, in such cases, it has been the woman who has been shamed or pressured to quietly bear the scars and pain in the name of “protecting the coach and program”. Often such accusations and claims never saw the light of day. But in the #MeToo and social media age, those days are gone. And as increased light is being shed on the “boys will be boys” culture of football, what the public is beginning to see more plainly, is a culture that is increasingly out of line with America’s rapidly changing social norms and mores regarding treatment of women and domestic abuse.
The second incident is the tragic death of the University of Maryland freshman football player, Jordan McNair, a freshman lineman who died of heat stroke after running a set of 110-yard wind sprints. The first question is why lineman, who hardly ever run more than 20 yards on a play during games are running 110 yard sprints. Beyond that, apparently Maryland either did not have in place or did not follow commonly accepted treatment procedures for preventing and treating heat stroke.
But in the “increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny” category, in the investigative process of McNair’s death, according to an ESPN report, several current football players and people close to the program described a toxic coaching culture under head coach D.J. Durkin based on fear and intimidation. Belittlement, humiliation, extreme verbal abuse and embarrassment of players was common. According to ESPN, one player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill. Coaches also used food punitively as it was reported that a player said he was forced to overeat to the point of vomiting.
As a former all-American and professional basketball player and son of a high school football coach, I have both witnessed and been on the receiving end of intense, profanity laced tirades. Highly competitive sports are intense and emotionally charged. As a player, you understand that a certain amount of that comes with the territory. But there are limits. Coaches don’t get carte blanche to humiliate, belittle and berate young people. No one does. And in particular, anyone associated with an educational institution. Athletes deserve the same opportunity as all students to learn and experience college life in an environment that is safe and one that treats them with dignity and respect.
There are two salient issues as it relates to this particular situation and the culture of football in general. The sad reality is that far too many coaches and athletic administrators don’t think of football “student-athletes” as students at all, but rather as hired guns and dumb jocks. As a result, they are denied the same rights as other college students, that being the right to have a quality educational experience and earn a meaningful degree. In short, it is clear to everyone, and in particular to the players themselves, that they are on campus, first and foremost, to play ball.
The second relates to the most fundamental justification used by the athletic establishment for athletic programs and their coaches to a part of the educational institution in the first place. Specifically, that athletic programs supplement the academic mission of the institution and that coaches are in fact “teachers”. If coaches justify their place on campus in that they are educators and teachers, why aren’t they held to the same standards of decorum and behavior as all other faculty members? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t justify your place and role in an academic community by claiming to be an educator while engaging in abusive practices that create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. An atmosphere where students are verbally abused, belittled, berated and humiliated is hardly a nurturing educational environment.
The fact is, while there may have been a time when it was widely accepted that screaming, berating and intimidating players was simply a part of how coaches “made boys into men”, those days are over. While such behavior and methods might be acceptable for training Marines for war, intercollegiate and interscholastic football is not war. Such behavior has no place within an educational institution.
Granted, these two incidents, in and of themselves, will not bring the American football industrial complex 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 these as another couple of bricks in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society.
Athletes often use a technique called “visualization” to improve their chances of success. For example, the athlete imagines an act such as hitting a baseball or envisions reacting during a competitive situation. It is believed that if the athlete sees herself performing a particular skill, it will improve her chances of actually performing that skill successfully. In other words, to achieve success, one must be able to visualize what success will look like.
The purpose of this essay is to encourage the reader to envision success of another sort: the successful transformation of the role that athletics plays in our high schools, and as a result, in our society. I am not talking about change around the fringes, but a progressive vision of systemic change. A vision of change from the current “elite” model of sports in America, where the vast majority of resources are heaped upon the few who show extraordinary potential, to one that would have as its fundamental purposes, to use athletics as a tool to supplement the educational development of participants, to support the missions of our educational institutions, and to promote broad based participation in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime for purposes of public health.
This is not about the intrinsic value of athletics, but whether the current system is best suited for making the most of athletics’ potential to meet our nation’s education and public health needs. There is a place for elite athletics in our culture. The question is simply whether that place should be in our schools.
Elite sport is an important American cultural institution. As such, we as individuals and, collectively, as a society, must critically assess its impact on our schools, communities and culture. This is no different than other American institutions. From our health care system to our welfare system, old ideas, programs, institutions, and philosophies must continually be examined, refined and, if appropriate, restructured. And the fundamental standard of evaluation is utility. Do these institutions continue to serve the public in relevant and timely ways? If it is determined, through honest debate and data based research, that elite athletics have a positive impact on educational institutions and public health, we should invest more heavily in them. But if elite athletics’ supposed positive benefits are disproved, we have an obligation to reconsider that investment. To do anything else would be irresponsible.
One only needs to look in any newspaper’s sports pages, watch the local television newscast or tune into ESPN’s 24-hour a day sports coverage to appreciate sports’ popularity and the breadth of its influence in America. There is also no denying that virtually every aspect of the sports enterprise has changed over the past two decades. There is more money, more media exposure, more pressure to win, and that pressure is creeping further and further down sport’s food chain. Regardless of how popular sports are, there are serious questions about the ways they have come to influence our schools, communities, and culture. The question is whether our nation’s system of organized athletics, as currently constructed, is meeting its educational, civic, and public health purposes.
Sadly, the answer is that it is not. It is within our educational system that this shortfall has had the most impact and greatest consequences. Despite how much we love sports, we must be honest about their impact on our culture.
Before continuing, I would like to be clear on two points. First, I love sports. I love playing them. I love watching them. I believe they play an important role in our lives. I do not advocate the elimination of organized sports in America. This is neither wise nor realistic. It is critical however, that we honestly evaluate its impact on our schools and society, and if appropriate, restructure our educational investment in athletics accordingly.
The issue is balance and perspective, not elimination. Sport’s potential to positively contribute to our society is enormous. If kept in the proper perspective, sport provides compelling entertainment, contributes to a healthy lifestyle, and builds character in participants. The problem however, is that we have lost perspective regarding the role that organized athletics should play in our culture. And our educational institutions have played a significant role in that development.
Second, the type of athletics to which I refer are elite, interscholastic sports. There is absolutely no doubt that athletics have a place within our educational institutions. Athletic activities can and should be utilized to supplement the educational experience of participants as well as the academic mission of the institution. And there is a place for elite athletics within American culture. The question is whether that place should be in our educational system. In short, should our educational institutions be saddled with the responsibility of developing elite athletes and teams? And is our current system of athletics the best model for meeting our nation’s educational and public health needs?
It is notable that the United States is the only country in the world in which elite athletics programs are sponsored by high schools and universities. In Europe, the responsibility for the development of elite athletes and teams is borne by private sports clubs or professional teams. Could it be that in the case of the development and promotion of highly competitive, elite athletics, the Europeans have it right?
In Europe, when a youngster is identified as having superior talent and potential for a particular sport, he or she pursues that sport through a local club program. The responsibility of the educational system regarding athletics is to promote and encourage broad based participation in activities that can be enjoyed for a lifetime for purposes of improving public health. This, as opposed to the American system which devours increasingly large amounts of resources for an activity that has as its primary purpose to provide public entertainment and to serve the athletic needs of a select group of athletes.
While the move to the European club sport system may sound radical, it is not. Our school systems and universities would survive without highly competitive sports as would our elite athletes and coaches. Local organizations and youth groups would develop and sponsor more comprehensive athletic programs. And, as in Europe, existing professional teams would begin to sponsor their own feeder systems and programs. Each professional league would be forced to develop a minor league system, similar to the one that currently exists in baseball. In short, the responsibility for developing future professional athletes would shift from our high schools to private sports clubs and pro teams.
In some sports, such a shift is well on its way. Many elite athletes in the sports of soccer, basketball and swimming have come to consider their participation on elite local clubs or traveling AAU or all-star teams more important than participation on their high school teams. To these athletes, this is a logical progression of their involvement in youth sports clubs and elite travel teams. Further, the direct link between high school athletics and the educational institution has become increasingly tenuous as a growing number of high school coaches are not professional teachers. These trends are simply the first signs that the de-coupling of elite athletics and high schools is under way.
Shifting the responsibility for conducting elite sports programs to outside sports clubs is clearly in the best interests of our schools, athletes and coaches. Our educational system would be rid of a highly visible source of hypocrisy and scandal. Intramural, physical education, and wellness programs could be expanded, resulting in more students being able to avail themselves of health and exercise related resources. The credibility of our educational system would grow because such a change would signify that our schools and communities have strong educational values and public health priorities. With such a change, our educational system would be better positioned to serve the broad, long-term, health and exercise needs of America.
It is interesting to note that when compared to other countries, American students fair poorly academically when compared to students in counties such as Japan, Germany, France and South Korea to name only a few. Students from these and most other industrialized nations consistently perform better than American students in science and math. American students also consistently rate last in the area of physical fitness. Although there is no data demonstrating a direct link between these two dubious distinctions, the fact that America is the only country where schools are responsible for the development of elite athletes and teams, leads one the think that there has to be a correlation.
In such a system, athletes and coaches would continue to have the opportunity to hone their skills as elite sports activities and training would simply shift to other local sponsoring agencies. As in Europe, local sports organizations would develop and sponsor more comprehensive athletic programs and professional teams would sponsor feeder systems and programs.
Contrary to what avid sports fans might believe, our nation’s educational system would not collapse if the responsibility for developing elite athletes and teams were “privatized”. While our school systems might be less dynamic, and in some ways, less fun without elite athletics, they will continue to go about the business of educating. In fact, the education of students would likely improve with the elimination of such programs as the focus on academics would intensify.