Good Sports

Peter Wood

The University of Phoenix doesn’t have a football team. The online university does, however, have a football stadium in Glendale, Arizona. It acquired naming rights in September 2006 to what was built as Cardinals Stadium, and the NFL Cardinals continue to play there. The symbolism is pitch perfect. A university with no sports program and no residential community puts its name on a state-of-the-art professional sports facility. Thus we have a virtual university celebrating a virtual commitment to athletics, without any of the messiness of NCAA rules, Title IX, coaches paid at level of oriental potentates, players with felony arrest records, gang rapes, drug deals, fake transcripts, and all the other benchmarks of big time college sports. 

Phoenix’s approach was no doubt born of savvy marketing, not cynicism. It can’t hurt the university to have its name mentioned frequently to the sports-watching public which surely overlaps considerably with the adult self-improvers who make up the bulk of Phoenix’s nationwide enrollment.

But the University of Phoenix’s approach to college sports could, in fact, spread.   I admit that sounds counterintuitive. Yesterday, Sporting News reported that the Bowl Championship Series (BCS—the organization that controls Division I-AA football competition) announced a deal to move the series from the Fox Network which has been paying $80 million a year to ESPN which will pay $125 million.   And President-elect Barack Obama said on an ESPN interview that he would favor replacing the BCS with a system of college football playoffs. 

Expectations are high for President-elect Obama. Many think he can restore the economy, end war, save the environment, heal historical injustices, and win new international respect for the U.S., but in challenging the BCS, he may at last have overreached. The BCS coordinator, John Swofford, responded to Obama’s declaration with gentle good humor towards the rookie president:

"First of all I want to congratulate newly elected President Obama and I am glad he has a passion for college football like so many other Americans. For now, our constituencies -- and I know he understands constituencies -- have settled on the current BCS system, which the majority believe is the best system yet to determine a national champion while also maintaining the college football regular season as the best and most meaningful in sports. We certainly respect the opinions of president-elect Obama and welcome dialogue on what's best for college football."

Clearly Obama doesn’t know whom he is dealing with. No one—no one with any sense—messes with the folks who control big time college sports. 

                But why is this so? 

For a long time, the answer appeared to be that college sports were a major income stream for colleges and universities. But back in 1990, an English professor at Indiana University published a myth-puncturing book, College Sports Inc.: the Athletic Department vs. the University, that systematically dismantled the long-cherished illusion that college sports make money for higher education. The author, Murray Sperber, devoted about 150 pages to “Old Siwash in red Ink,” tracing the techniques by which coaches and athletic directors diverted substantial funds away from the academic enterprise to fund their money-losing ventures on the field. It turned out that a mere handful of universities actually make money in sports. Everyone else, including most of the universities with well-known nationally competitive teams, loses money—and in non-trivial amounts.

Sperber’s book devastated the old myth that intercollegiate sports teams generally make money for their colleges. As a consequence, the college athletics industry pretty much abandoned the idea of defending their enterprise in terms of direct revenue. They turned instead to the idea of indirect revenue: they argued that alumni donations to colleges are substantially higher than they otherwise would be because of alumni support for intercollegiate sports competition. 

This appears to be no truer than the original concoction. Rather, sports teams compete with the academic enterprise for alumni support, diverting donations that would otherwise go to the academic enterprise. Even then, the alumni gifts come nowhere close to covering the deficits of teams engaged in NCAA Division I intercollegiate competition. 

Last week at a conference put on by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in North Carolina, I had the opportunity to hear Professor Sperber revisit his famous thesis in light of the current financial stringencies in higher education. He asked. “Will the College Sports Tail Wag the University Dog in the Current Financial Crisis?”    Ever a realist, Sperber didn’t answer the question but instead offered two scenarios. In one, the college sports teams outside the big conferences which are already losing money will hemorrhage even more, but the athletics lobby will engage in a “major brawl” to keep their teams in play “no matter the impact on the rest of the university’s finances.” In the other scenario, times will be so tough that college sports fans will flock to college sports events as “diversionary entertainment,” and “not even the obscenely high current annual incomes of many football and basketball coaches will diminish.” 

Either way, it seems, the blight of over-funded college sports will be with us as long as there are colleges and universities convinced that their reputations depend on team sports. 

The Pope Center conference also included some comments by William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in North Carolina. Dr. Thierfelder was an Olympian high jumper and two-time All-American, as well as the former president of York Barbell Company, and approaches sports as, at best, “a thirst for excellence and accompanying perfection that offers a glimpse of God.” But he is not an apologist for the current system, which does little to instill virtue or build character.    Rather, he sees that on “most campuses” there is tension “between those who pursue academic and athletic excellence.” The professionalization of sports is part of the problem in Thierfelder’s view, but the misconceptions run even deeper and begin “long before student-athletes arrive on campus.”   At bottom, he sees the problem as a matter of “poorly formed consciences” and “over-indulged natural appetites” that put the self at the center of student’s decisions. 

For what it is worth, I strongly endorse Thierfelder’s view. Done right, college sports can greatly enhance both the lives of athletes and the experience of college for all students. The way to achieve this kind of wholesomeness is probably some combination of club sports and league competition below the threshold of NCAA Division I. Of course, to turn on television and see the thrumming excitement of big time college sports is to realize that a voluntary return to simplicities of sport as camaraderie, personal striving, and the beauty of perfect execution is not very likely. 

Sperber wryly observed at one point that the situation in college sports is so awful that most of us who are serious about higher education simply look away. College presidents realize that challenging the system is folly and will lead quickly to their dismissal. Boards of trustees typically throw their fiduciary responsibilities to the wind when faced with the profligacy of college sports. But it would be wrong to say that this is simply a legacy problem. Every year or two another college or university decides to up the ante. Last week, as it happened, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte trustees voted in favor of creating a new football program, which will require $45 million just to start the 2013 season—including a $21 million stadium.  How do trustees, faced with the currently dismal financial prospects for higher education in general and for public universities in particular, justify this kind of expense? "It's stepping off the sidelines and being a part of something bigger," according to the promotional video that the Trustees watched before taking their madcap vote.

I don’t have much to add to this except to say that, as an anthropologist, I have to look on college sports less as an opportunity for the athletes and less as a vicarious thrill for alumni, and more as the attempt of an institution with a weak sense of common identity to conjure a common purpose. In the fustian language of social theorists a century ago, the teams create a “collective efflorescence,” the need for which arises because the community has, on its own, very weak affectional ties. A college assembles a bunch of late adolescents who are mostly strangers to each other and plunges them into academic courses. At one time those courses threatened many students with humiliation and failure. College was the unknown and it was scary. Nowadays, students typically have little fear of failure, since higher education has essentially engineered the possibility of failure out of the system, but a residuum of social anxiety remains. Students worry about fitting in, and status hierarchies remain firmly in place. Taking an interest in the home team remains one of the easiest ways for students to allay these anxieties and become part of the larger, mostly notional, “whole” of college life.

Academic work is by its nature mostly solitary. Group study and cooperative projects can ameliorate this to a degree, but books still have to be read, problems solved, and papers written, and the levels of personal anxiety among college students remain pretty high. This provides a continuing reason for many students to become emotionally involved with their school’s team. 

The logic of this suggests that the weaker a college’s academic identity and the more insecure its students about their place in a common educational enterprise, the more likely the college is to try to invent itself on the sports field.   The Ivy League can afford a more easy-going attitude towards its athletic programs.

The basic notion of college sports is to draw the students into a shared enterprise, even if they share it mainly as members of a raucous audience. It is not really clear that colleges these days need the “mechanical solidarity” (as Durkheim called it) of this kind of identity group. For one thing, it is mainly a male preoccupation, and it is not clear that women in college need or want this form of attachment, at least in the same degree as men. Colleges are now close to sixty percent female, and Title IX enforcement has made sure that athletic opportunities are apportioned accordingly. Successful women’s teams (e.g. University of Connecticut women’s basketball) can serve as magnets for campus community every bit as well as men’s teams, but the tribal identity somehow remains much more tightly bound with how the male teams perform. College women, meanwhile, often seem to develop attachments to their colleges that are not mediated by allegiance to sports teams. 

If this anthropological account is at all accurate, it clearly fits rather awkwardly with the notion that higher education is or ought to be primarily about opening the world of disciplined rational inquiry to students. Or, indeed, about learning anything in particular. 

Murray Sperber views college athletics as a Frankenstein monster: an enterprise that escaped the institution that created it and is now powerful enough to intimidate those who are ostensibly charged to protect the overall good of our colleges and universities. College sports have their own trade organization to promote the interests of coaches and athletic directors, the NCAA. And college sports have important ties to the mass media and (less visibly) to organized gambling. 

William Thierfelder speaks to the ideals of amateur competition, in which the pursuit of physical excellence complements and abets efforts to strive for moral and intellectual excellence. And perhaps these ideals are still approachable on a small scale at the few colleges and universities that are willing to stand back from the lure of big time athletics.

That’s an appealing vision, but not likely to overcome the social dynamic that harnesses the sheer excitement of big-time college sports as a force in the lives of students and alumni.   And that excitement seems to provide all the cover the college sports industry needs to continue its less joyful accomplishments: diverting scarce resources from higher education, licensing low standards of behavior among both athletes and fans, fostering the greed of coaches, and exploiting student athletes. For these there may well be no cure.   Perhaps we just learn to admire them, in the spirit of watching a slow-growing but lovely shelf-fungus slowly devour an old tree. 

But where there is no cure, there is sometimes an end. The tree eventually disappears. The University of Phoenix stands as the ever-present reminder to old-fashioned colleges and universities that students do increasingly have alternatives–alternatives that are not hostage to athletic directors and their massive depredations on the common budget. 

Phoenix is, of course, only the best-known of a growing breed of institutions that pursue distance education without the encumbrance of a campus and all the adjunct services and programs that go with traditional forms of higher education. I don’t expect such distance education programs any time soon to swallow up a giant share of the market for 18-22 year old students, but these programs are growing and have a better financial prospect than a great many of the old-fashioned colleges and universities. Moreover, their very form bypasses the need to create an affectional community around sports teams. They create networks, not communities. I don’t welcome a world in which higher education will migrate more and more into this format, but I think it likely that that’s where we are going.

ESPN need not worry too much about that prospect. The universities competing at the top level will stay in the business for a long time to come, though they may well accede at some point to the perennial call of reformers to reorganize themselves as paid professional teams and drop the shallow pretense of being amateur endeavors. Rather, the change will come among the all-too-numerous colleges and universities that are stuck in the unhappy situation of mediocre academic programs conjoined to mediocre—but very expensive—sports programs.   These institutions would be better advised to put their money where Phoenix did: on the wall of someone else’s stadium. Or the fender of a NASCAR champion. 

 New institutions arise when old ones are no longer capable of meaningful reform and genuine adaptation. The intractability of the problems in big time college sports are one more reason why traditional higher education is headed for long-term trouble. I have written recently of the problems with higher education’s basic financial model, its difficulties in finding a compelling way to integrate teaching and scholarship, and its ready embrace of illiberal ideologies. I wouldn’t say that the problem with sports looms larger than any of these, but it adds to the broader sense that American higher education is a vulnerable institution. It has a view of itself not unlike the American automobile industry of decades past, in which it sees its work as too central to the national well-being to ever suffer more than temporary setbacks. But the Big Three were wrong, and so too may be those who think the university can continue without making fundamental changes. 

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