I’m at a disadvantage in talking about college sports, except when I’m not. Journalistically I don’t follow sports except for their social impact, don’t subscribe to Sports Illustrated or go to Yankee games or watch them on TV. But I rowed crew in high school, ran five marathons (Boston, New York and New Jersey), and taught at five Jesuit universities where I supported the students in my classes by showing up at track meets, swim meets, baseball and soccer games. Plus, as a result of my running and swimming, I endured spinal chord and rotator cuff operations. And thus I have some thoughts on the place of sports, at least at good universities.
Recent sports scandal articles are about much bigger stuff, and, to my relief, the Jesuit biggies have not been implicated.
In the Washington Post, Stephen L. Weber, 15 years a president of San Diego University, says “College football is in a crisis; today’s system cannot fix itself. Indeed, no one on the inside of intercollegiate athletics can speak openly because too much is at stake. And taxpayers nationwide are harmed as a result.” He concludes that “the Justice Department must blow the whistle soon.”
Taylor Branch is best known as the historian of the civil rights movement; in an article in the Atlantic, he uses slavery as a metaphor for the current status of college athletes who, when they sign with a big football university (usually a state school) they sign away what should be their natural right to profit from their labors. The universities, under the control of the NCAA, which has no independent legal status, have developed the myth of the “student athlete” in order to hamstring the young recruit. It will deprive the student football player—who has starred in high school with the hope of a scholarship, who has a professional agent representing him to bargain with a variety of competing schools, and who will manage his career through college to place him on a professional team— of any share in the millions of dollars his performance will rake in for the school.
The football players, in Branch’s report, are stuck on the “plantation.” A player who gets tattooed at a discount because of his team status is disciplined. The great games are recorded on DVDs and sold to fans and alumni over the years. The players get nothing, even when sweatshirts emblazoned with their numbers rake in money in the campus book store. Branch’s answer, which I do not buy, is that student athletes should be paid. Told that students with athletic scholarships are already “paid”—a full tuition scholarship is worth at least $100,000—reminds him of slave owners who say their slaves will be rewarded in heaven.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Libby Sander reports on the physical cost of punishing workout regimes on young bodies. Young athletes want to please their parents and their coaches, and their parents imagine that more practice, more workouts, more lifting, more summer camps will make their children stars, resulting in college scholarships and a huge savings on tuition bills. They do not know that of the tens of millions of teenagers who compete every year, only 400,000 make it onto an NCAA team. One sports medicine expert reports that one thing appears abundantly clear, “if you play a lot of sports as a kid, you end up being more worn out by the time you get to college.” And at college you will suffer any number of knee, hip, shoulder, arm and back injuries and operations—plus concussions.
A recent NCAA study shows that Division 1 athletes spend from 32 to 40 hours a week working out or playing in the regular season and, under various regimes, keep it up all year. Enough has already been published in the media about brain injuries from both high school and college football to question the morality of having the sport at all.
But, tragically, these articles barely brush the deeper long-range damage of this destructive culture. Unless the school has exceptional integrity, these young men and women at the prime of life do not get college educations. When do they study, if they study at all? I taught two football players over ten years who were at the top of the class; but that was at a small college. They were the exception. The school’s later decision to drop football was a relief. Taylor Branch quotes one university official who says that if his players learned to read and write that would be doing them justice.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.