The Curmudgeon works for a very small (eleven employees) consulting firm based in central Pennsylvania. A few months after he took this job in 2002, he was visiting the home office and went out to lunch with his new colleagues. During the course of the meal the conversation turned to college football – as it always does in central Pennsylvania, where people worship Penn State football and the late Joe Paterno (despite recent events) only slightly less than their lord and savior. In the middle of this conversation, The Curmudgeon stated that he did not understand why intercollegiate sports even exists and suggested that the world would be a better place without them. One of The Curmudgeon’s co-workers – one of his bosses, actually – looked like he wanted to reach across the table, grab The Curmudgeon by his necktie, and separate his head from the rest of his body. For a moment, The Curmudgeon didn’t know whether to fear more for his job or for his life.
The Curmudgeon is actually a rather avid sports fan – avid enough to attend spring training in Florida almost annually and avid enough to spend time between classes during his freshman year in college at the school’s ice rink, watching the local professional hockey team go through its pre-season training. Even so, he’s never been a fan of college sports, and as he’s grown older, his ambivalence has turned to antipathy and he has come to wonder why intercollegiate sports exists at all.
To be fair, The Curmudgeon understands why the University of Michigan wants to play basketball against Michigan State. He also understands why the University of Alabama might want to play football against Auburn and why Harvard might want to compete against Boston College, but for the life of him he does not understand why the University of Southern California plays football against Notre Dame or why Duke plays basketball against the University of Connecticut.
What does this have to do with higher education?
What does it have to do with a university’s mission of performing research and advancing knowledge?
What does it have to do with a university’s mission of teaching and preparing its students to be productive citizens?
What does it have to do with a university making important contributions to society?
Ever the contrarian, The Curmudgeon has periodically posed these questions to those who express enthusiasm for intercollegiate sports, and so far, the responses have been less than…persuasive.
“It builds school spirit.”
Yeah, so? It builds school spirit by engaging in an activity that has nothing to do with education or the school. Accepting such a rationale for the sake of discussion, would a Playboy magazine “girls of the ivy league” feature build school spirit at Cornell or Brown –well, at least within about fifty percent of the student body – and if it would, does that make it acceptable or desirable or right?
“It helps with fundraising.”
Wonderful. Are we really suggesting that people who have enough disposable income to contribute to an institution of higher learning are uninterested in supporting its library, its biomedical research, its scholarship fund, or its program to prepare students to teach in inner-city schools? That they will only write a check if the school employs enough 300-pound behemoths to make it to a BCS bowl game?
Do these reasons provide sufficient justification for intercollegiate sports?
To support intercollegiate sports, moreover, large institutions give dozens or even hundreds of scholarships to athletic men and women, many (most?) of whom spent their four years of high school doing just enough to get by. Meanwhile, young people who took their studies seriously and who worked and studied hard are frequently forced to pass on college, to work their way through school with the help of two or three jobs, or to finish college burdened with enormous loans.
Is that fair? Is that right? (And please – not the old “Get over it. Life isn’t always fair.”)
This isn’t even a matter of fair or not; it’s a matter of right or wrong – and intercollegiate sports is just plain wrong.
The Curmudgeon isn’t a fool (the sentiment of some to the contrary). He understands that intercollegiate sports is big business, that it makes a lot of money for a lot of people, and that it’s not going to disappear just because it’s wrong. He also understands that the reputation and identity and sense of self-worth of some universities and their alumni is based entirely on their athletic programs and that nothing on heaven or earth will ever convince them that they should abandon what has come to be viewed as their very reason for existing.
Still, that doesn’t make it right, and the people who run the schools that engage in intercollegiate sports surely know this. University presidents typically have doctoral degrees, so they’re pretty bright people. It’s hard to imagine them being anything less than appalled that they must give scholarships to people with no interest in actual, you know, scholarship. It’s similarly difficult to imagine the faculty of such institutions feeling any differently.
Board members? Maybe not so much: the kinds of tycoons who frequently serve on very large university boards are often looking to build monuments to themselves and are probably very excited about the kind of attention they and their school can gain on the playing field. After all, it’s easier to spend your way to an NCAA championship than it is to a Nobel Prize. You’re not likely to hear some corporate bigwig brag to another over cocktails at the club, “Did you hear that a member of my alma mater’s physics department had an article published in The Journal of Applied Physics?” Similarly, can you imagine how board members interviewing prospective presidents of their institutions might react if one of those candidates said, “You know, I think we should drop the football and basketball programs and invest our savings in better laboratories for our molecular biologists”?
No, The Curmudgeon is afraid intercollegiate sports is here to stay.
And that’s too bad.