Friday, September 28, 2007

A Lesson in Safe Logic

While scouring the paper for my latest blog topic, I must admit that I didn't think I'd find inspiration inside the sports page. A brief, seven paragraph article grabbed my attention. Interesting, it concerns fellow blogger Quaker Dave's alma mater, Rutgers University.

Here, a lesson in safe logic.

A longtime critic of Rutgers University's drive into big-time sports is being criticized over a newspaper article that university officials have branded as racist. The tenured English professor responded to arguments that athletic scholarships provide opportunity to low-income minority students.

"If you were giving the scholarship to an intellectually brilliant kid who happens to play a sport, that's fine," Dowling said. "But they give it to a functional illiterate who can't read a cereal box, and then make him spend 50 hours a week on physical skills. That's not opportunity. If you want to give financial help to minorities, go find the ones who are at the library after school. "

There are racist statements and then there are truthful statements. Professor Dowling's comments fall into the latter category. When I was in undergrad, it used to irk me something terrible to see the sort of concessions paid to scholarship athletes, particularly football players. My senior year, I took a sex ed class full of football players. We were asked to write a series of oral reports.

The articles proportedly written by the players themselves were instead drafted by graduate assistants. This was made painfully evident when these so-called student-athletes mispronounced complex words they had supposedly written themselves. Most faculty members turned a blind eye to this sort of indiscretion. The few faculty members who did stand up to this unfair practice were either let go or were threatened with termination.

The phrase, "student-athlete", is often a misnomer. Those who assert with a straight face that the primary goal of collegiate athletes should be to get an education are obviously smoking something and inhaling. Their primary goal, hands down, is to be successful athletes. College sports have increasingly become a lucrative business. Colleges and Universities can and do make millions of dollars off the backs of successful football programs. I single out college football because it's the highest revenue-producing sport.

Rutgers University, which in a previous life was a perennial doormat, has found itself these days blessed with a successful football program. Naturally, it hasn't thought twice about jumping in with both feet into dubiously ethical means of making boatloads of money.

Unbridled greed is a powerfully motivating factor. Naturally, the more success a team has on the field, the more money is raked in by the university thanks to lucrative bowl games and TV contracts. The reality of college athletics is that a very fortunate few, the cream of the crop, make it to the professional level and reap the benefits of multi-million dollar per year contracts. Most others end up shortchanged. Those who leave college early only to find themselves among the ranks as one of the last drafted, or even worse, undrafted, receive a one-way-trip up shit creek without a paddle. Some of the athletes that don't pass muster in the pro ranks make their way up into the broadcaster's booth. Some start small businesses. Some undergo the indignity of selling cars or insurance.

Most, however, make do as best they can. Deprived of an adequate education due in large part to the whims of greedy administrators, many former student-athletes get a no-cost, all-expenses-paid bucket of ice water to the face. Welcome back to reality, kid. Without cheering crowds to idolize them and feed their egos, a dose of the real world comes as a powerful shock. Having been groomed, coddled, and treated as royalty for years, if not their entire lives, ex-college athletes get a powerful reality check once they have outlived their usefulness. Occasionally, a newspaper story will crop up relating how a former student-athlete has embraced a life of crime, or will detail the tragic tale of a former student-athlete now languishing in a sub-standard job.

John Updike wrote a poem entitled "Ex-Basketball Player" that fits well in the context of this post.

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

If we took Professor Dowling's advice and granted scholarships to minority students based on their educational prowess, rather than their athletic ability, then I do believe that we'd be advancing a worthy cause. As it stands now, colleges and universities unashamedly grant scholarships to little more than paid gladiators. In the days before integration, there were only two avenues by which an African-American could rise to fame: in the entertainment industry and in the sports field. Times have changed, there is better opportunity for minorities, but the inescapable fact remains this: a career in sports still remains a ticket out of poverty and a chance for great fame.

I admit that I enjoy college sports, but I make a point not to reach the level of fanatic when I cheer on my favorite college team. Sports are a pleasant distraction and I never forget that the players on the field are all a bunch of 18-22 year old kids. Many people, however, seem to forget this. They get so easily distracted by the spectacle that they revert into barbarians. I don't think I need to place overmuch emphasis on the fact that we're talking about sports here, not nuclear war.

Allow me to paraphrase Bill Hicks. In this instance, he was speaking in reference to war, but he could have just as easily been talking about sports.

Who are all these people with such low self-esteem that they need a sports program to feel GOOD about themselves?

Instead of a sport program, may I recommend: sit-ups? A Fruit cup? Six to eight glasses of water a day? Prayer and reflection?

I'm not telling you how to live your life. I'm just saying, use your options.

Though its effects may not be as visually thrilling as an improbable over-the-shoulder catch, a game-ending field goal, or a National Championship, if we granted scholarships based on academic merit, we might see some change for the better. As it stands now, a system that reduces minority athletes to pawns in a giant chessboard is true racism. A system that places more worth on a student's ability to suit up on Saturdays--as opposed to making the grade the rest of the week-- is the glaringly real example of institutionalized racism.


Anonymous said...

You just got blogrolled at MPS - that is one of the best essays on college sports I have ever read.



joshhill1021 said...

I agree with you on many accounts here Kevin, but we need to remeber that not all jocks are dumb. I knew plenty of people when I was in school who were football players and some of them were intelligent. My roommate was a biology major who then went to med school after his undergrad. I also currently know a kid who is a football player at NC State who is no dummie. No, he is not a rocket scientist, but he would have gotten into college with or without football, he just also happens to be a great running back, so it payed his way versus his parents having to pay.

So I agree with you, but lets also not stereotype the jock as stupid either, no matter what race they are. Don't get me wrong there are plenty of young men who would not get into college without football or basketball, but not all are in that situation.

Comrade Kevin said...


I appreciate the honor! Thanks much!

Boxer Rebel,

You're quite right. Not all jocks are dumb. I was about to make a snarky comment that the punter, field goal kicker, and quarterback are the only ones with brains but I refrained.

I don't shout this around but I played football for a year and a half in high school. To say that I didn't fit in at all would be an understatement. There were SOME players on the team graced with brains, but they were a decided minority.

Every now and again, a football player or college athlete stands out as articulate and well-spoken, but I don't see it all that much.

Distributorcap said...


i went to Rutgers when it was a football doormat. I also went to Rutgers when they made the final four in 1976 (and became a doormat in the nat'l championships in Philadelphia).

a couple of the basketball players were in my classes. there is no doubt they were given special treatment that year. no doubt.

just saying.