Imagine: It’s a crisp fall day this coming October and Brett Favre -- yes, he’s baaaack!!! -- is hunched under center, ready to take the snap at his own 35-yard line. It’s the fourth quarter, there are 10 seconds left on the clock, and his team is down six points. Favre drops back, evades an oncoming rusher and fires one of his patented missiles downfield, which is snatched out of the air by the receiver -- say, an unretired Jerry Rice -- who then rambles across the goal line as time expires. The extra point is good, and the University of Southern Mississippi wins. That’s right: The University of Southern Mississippi.
Now, granted, this isn’t likely to happen, even in the bonkers world of Brett Favre. But if it did, it might not only provide some salvation for the beleaguered quarterback; it might very well save America’s institutions of higher learning from their own craven obsession with athletics.
Don’t get me wrong. Few people are more passionate about sports than I am, and I am especially susceptible to the pomp and pageantry of college athletics. I buckle before the idea of students who compete only for the love of the game. More, I am fully aware that only a very small percentage of varsity athletes ever turn pro and that most varsity athletes are just amateur jocks. Anyone who watched a phalanx of Stanford players being
interviewed after their recent Orange Bowl victory can attest that there are articulate, intelligent athletes who also happen to be students. Indeed, Luck and Company seem to have spent as much time in the classroom as on the practice field.
Yet you can’t help but feel that these were the exceptions to a very broad rule, and even a college partisan like me realizes that “student athlete” is something of an oxymoron. Much as it pains me to say it, by and large, students are students and athletes are athletes, and seldom do the twain meet. As Harvard professor Louis Menand put it in The New Yorker a decade ago, speaking of college athletes, they have “on average, lower S.A.T. scores than their classmates; they underperform in college (their grades are even lower than their S.A.T. scores predict), and are more likely than other students to rank in the bottom third of their class; their lives after graduation are relatively unaffected by the college experience; and they tend to feel isolated from other students …”
Menand was reviewing a study of college athletics co-authored by former Princeton University president, William G. Bowen, that found most of the reasons adduced for prioritizing college athletics were really bunkum. Successful athletic programs didn’t necessarily lead to higher alumni giving or increased diversity or even, in the case of state universities, more good will from the general public that would lead to more tax revenue.
As for infusing the university with leadership skills, athletes didn’t do that either. Still, for all they didn’t do, athletes were given every possible advantage in college admissions, which led Bowen to conclude that college athletics, in a way, corrupted the university, diverted it from its educational mission and substituted a set of competitive values for the broader goals of a liberal education.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you are a sports fan and you have little sympathy for this sort of reasoning. You may not really care whether a sports team is attached to a university or, as is often the case today, a university seems to be attached to a sports team. You may not care about the litany of transgressions committed by athletes or the fact that any college basketball player worth his salt is going to be one-and-out without an interest in getting a college degree or the way athletes can taint the culture of a university by acting as mercenaries.
But the athletes may be the least of it. One could argue, as I would, that S.A.T. scores and academic focus do not a university make. It is much more difficult to argue, however, that rampant boosters who have undue influence over the university, coaches who have more power than their university’s president and are barely accountable to anyone, and, above all, the obsession with money in athletics don’t seriously undermine institutions of higher learning and turn them into something they were never intended to be: semi-professional sports centers.
Let’s get this straight. College athletes are not bad people; they are not necessarily worse than the general college population. The vast majority of them are good kids using their prowess to get an education, and only a small handful of them have dragged their universities into the muck. But the process of exploiting athletes -- by boosters, by the media, by the university itself -- is not wholesome. That’s what drags the universities
into the mire of rampant commercialism and moral compromise. Even in purely athletic terms, it takes the innocent joy of sports and slaps a price tag on it.
So what to do? Well, here is a modest proposal in the Swiftian tradition that allows universities and colleges to have their big time athletics while also protecting themselves from the more invidious side effects. The answer: Just professionalize college athletics.
By “professionalize,” I don’t mean the nostrum that has been proposed for decades now -- namely, paying college athletes a living wage. That’s just namby pamby. I mean actually professionalize the teams, at least the big ones like football and basketball, by removing the requirement (and the pretense) that athletes be students. In effect, colleges would hire athletes just the way professional teams do. Those programs with the most money would obviously be able to hire the best athletes. These could be individuals who could never hope to make the academic grade or who are currently disqualified foreigners (Enes Kanter, welcome to Kentucky) or who are former professionals like Favre or Allen Iverson or Barry Bonds. Of course none of this would prevent real students from trying out. Matriculation just wouldn’t be a prerequisite.
In effect, the colleges would be sponsors of their big ticket teams the way corporations sponsor baseball teams in Japan, but the affiliation would be nominal. In practice, this would probably mean that the teams would be a combination of students, of young men and women with professional but not educational aspirations, and of middle-aged vets who were no longer capable of playing at a professional level but who still loved the game. So teams would continue to be feeders to the professional leagues, but they would
also have a kind of “senior circuit” component to them. Old pros would be firing passes not only to other old pros but to kids just out of high school.
Here’s the upside. Universities would still be recruiting high schoolers, but they wouldn’t have to operate within the NCAA’s Draconian rules – that is to say they could offer cash -- because there would be no NCAA, and they would really be competing in the trenches with one another by attracting both these young potential stars and proven professionals. The bidding wars alone would be exciting. And while these college teams are likely to be a few levels beneath professional quality, who’s to say that some very rich program might not eventually lure away an NFL or NBA player in his prime? This could increase rooting interest as well as profitability, turning the teams into cash cows. In any case, the money would be out in the open. No more subterfuges.
Think of the other benefits. You could conceivably turn around a team in a season rather than wait for a good recruiting class to mature. There would be no four-years-and-out rule because there would be no college eligibility. Alumni, many of whom seem to care less about the university than about its athletic success, could find nirvana and actually put their dollars to work to buy their school a decent team. No one would have to worry about violating the decorum of college athletics. Coaches could scream at players without seeming like monsters and having to be reprimanded by university administrators, and fans could excoriate players without having to traumatize 18-to-21-year-old men and women. And ex-pros who left school early (or skipped altogether) could go back to college and get their degrees as part of the deal.
But here’s the best part. By turning their big sports teams into another business operation like defense research centers, universities will be admitting that big time sports and education are really no longer compatible in this television age. They will be sheltering themselves and their students from the more deleterious consequences of errant athletes and the worse consequences of wild money; separating their core mission from their ancillary mission; reasserting their fundamental values and freeing themselves to admit the kinds of students that make for a vibrant, healthy educational community. At the same time, many of the best athletes would be freed from having to pretend they are students. They could simply follow their bliss. It’s a win-win, whereas the alternative is a rapidly approaching future in which universities are run by athletic departments.
And if you happen to get a geriatric Brett Favre squaring off against a geriatric Dan Marino, well that’s just gravy -- collegiate gravy.