Not A Sports School

B and I had a handful of faculty benefactors who watched over us at UO. Two of the most important were a wife-and-husband team of English dept. medievalists (technically, one is in the Honors College) who wrote us letters, served on our thesis committees, and provided much-needed moral and emotional support.

The husband half, Jim Earl, has carried on a lengthy and semi-succesful campaign to reform the relationship between athletics and academics at UO; the long and the short of it is that he has argued (passionately and eloquently) that the emphasis of sports over academics utterly compromises the entire purpose of higher education. His latest on the issue was published last week in a local Eugene paper and is available here (it's a short, brilliant read.)

The article reminded me of one of my favorite things about UCSC: it's not a sports school. Those of you who never went to a sports school probably haven't given the matter much thought. Those of us who have remember the endless seas of white baseball hats, the slack-jawed, blank-eyed "students" who just go to college so that they can go to football games, the whole MTV culture of beer bongs and date rapes overpowering the attempts of bien pensant profs and grads who try to teach despite everything.

That's why the athletics initiative on campus last year made me wary. I was horrified to learn that the full-time employees at the athletics center (again, this is in SC) don't make enough to live on, so I voted for more money for the center / them. But the language of all the student bills ("more money for sports!" "let's be a contender in intercollegiate athletics!" etc. etc. etc.) betrayed a complete lack of perspective. This is a major research university with reasonably high admissions standards. Anyone who got in here could have got in at a Pac-10 school. If their priorities revolve around athletics, they should have gone to a sports school, not a school whose mascot is the FIGHTING BANANA SLUG, for fuck's sake!

Let's be clear: I'm not anti-sports; like Jim Earl, it's true that I'm totally indifferent to sports-as-sports, but my real concern is college sports. Put simply, the more seriously a given university takes its athletics, the less seriously it takes its academics. It's a crude formula and I'm sure the presidents of every sports school in America would angrily thump their fists on tables and toss platitudes around about how the two can work together in beautiful harmony and a shared interest in the life of the body and the life of the mind creates a well-rounded individual and blah blah blah. Those platitudes are bloody lies, at least in the university context. I have already experienced what a relief it is to go somewhere that, at least for now, continues to pursue academic excellence and relegate sports to the level of fitness and hobby. I just hope it stays this way.

P.S. A word to my no-doubt-enraged-by-now friends who are real athletes: I'm not taking a cheap shot at any of you. I'm talking about the culture of athletics at big sports schools, not any given individual athlete. I know that a person can be a great scholar and a great athlete, but I also know that most great athletes are the farthest fucking thing from great scholars, and I believe that the mission of a university worthy of the name ought to be the pursuit of knowledge, not the pursuit of touchdowns.


Dr. Science said...

KFR, I couldn't agree with you, and Jim Earl, more. That was an interesting article. I also found it interesting that, at least when *I* viewed that page, it was bordered by Budweiser ads. Typical.

The Goat said...

I think we are setting ourselves up for failure if we are arguing that banana slugs fight.

On another note, I would in principle agree with what you say, but also note that there are plenty of schools that have an emphasis on sports that still maintain some of the highest academic standards out there. The problem is, it's at the graduate level. Of course, this means that undergraduate education suffers, but...you know...fuck them.

the largest downside to being at a sports school as a graduate student is the funding issue. The instruction and attention you get is great (because a lot of undergrads could give a fuck about school work if the huskies are on a winning streak), but all of the money is being funneled to the football program, the soccer, program, etc. That's what really sucks about it.

Plus, all those frickin' hat wearing idiots who go to college for the football games (a couple of people even admitted it to me) don't deserve a good education anyway. Hmph.

crashcourse said...

I kinda wonder if, currently and in the U.S., an undergraduate education is equal to what a high school graduation was 100 years ago? I wonder if the ratio of people to degrees would work out to be about equal if you compared those two catagories? Which is not to say I think that an undergraduate education is necessary to succeed in this world, as I know several people who are far smarter and more successful than I who haven't finished college.

Dolce Vita said...

I think you make a good point. All three of the state universities I've attended have been sports schools. School #1 (flagship state U) dropped most of its humanities/social sciences PhD programs after I left with my BA for lack of funds. Mind you, they added luxury boxes to the football stadium only a couple of years ago. School #2 (that one in Seattle) was flush with cash but the humanities suffered (I know this from experience). And school #3 is the one we have in common - where I met lots of smart athletes and where the basketball coach's bonus could have paid for my health insurance as well as that of everyone else in the department for our entire graduate career.

I'm going to throw this out there as food for thought (even though I hate to play into IV league stereotyping). So, how do the Yale or Harvard football teams look this year? Any "bowl" games in sight?

(Then again maybe they have the right idea because the focus is on the game instead of a sports industry?)

ransom said...

I think the focus on sports is pretty f'ed up. That being said, at those schools the sports departments aren't costing money which is being pulled away from the academic departments. The sports are a cash cow. The sad thing is that they fail to use some of that cash to improve their, um, reasons for existing.

I suppose my take on sports at a school is that it might be a little bit like the school having a job. Sure, it sucks, but it pays the bills. The problem comes when the school spends its take-home on facepaint and kegs of Coors Light.

Most poorly-thought-out analogy ever. *Shrug*

kungfuramone said...

Yeah, the problem with that is that the sports programs don't bring in any money. They break even at best and usually suck up funding that could otherwise go into academic programs. That's one of Jim Earl's big sticking points with the whole thing.

(It's a common misconception that they make money; I used to think that too.)

FOSCO said...

Kudos, KFR! This is why I love the University of Chicago so much.

But you do have to give credit to those few institutions that manage to have no apparent conflict between their nationally-competitive sports programs and their serious academic credentials (at both the graduate and undergraduate level). I can think of four off the top of my head: Duke, University of Michigan, Notre Dame, Stanford. And no, it's probably not a coincidence that three of these institutions are private...

(One might consider adding UVa, Berkeley, and UCLA to this list, but I would argue that recent budget issues at these schools raise some questions about whether or not academics are being funded as well as they could be.)