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UD's Excellent Adventure
January 14, 2008 - 4:32pm

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UD

Myles Brand is a little like Woody Allen, complete with the rather whiny accent and the self-deprecating manner. UD considered him, at the press conference, and as she did, she thought about universities.

Brand's blandness is the blandness of the politician, the blandness of the university president. When you watch his surgical neutering of every question raised, his platitudinous evasion of America's bigtime university sports scandal, you think -- UD thought -- of his million-dollar salary.

When you're sitting on a pile that big, you want to be careful not to make it untidy, and you want to be careful to maintain good relations with its source. Brand's big salary is only one big money reward in a university athletic gold mine, and coaches, television networks, apparel and alcohol vendors, tourism offices, and many other utterly non-academic interests are counting on him to keep mining it, to dig deeper for bigger coaches'
salaries, more game and less study time, more commercialization and professionalization altogether.

There's no university in this at all. Many programs are almost entirely autonomous, and university presidents -- most of them another variety of bland -- are powerless. The trends are all toward higher salaries, more game time, academic cheating... toward the disappearance of any academic link to these sports. Universities as academic institutions are hindrances, sources mainly of embarrassment as players haze, take steroids, take bogus courses, commit crimes, flunk out or drop out to go professional, while coaches, arrogant with their own million dollar salaries, break rules with abandon, and -- speaking of abandon -- dump one program after another in search of bigger bucks. And, under whatever circumstances coaches leave, they typically do so rewarded with yet more millions from the immense buyout contracts their agents negotiated....

Brand, as the public face of this travesty, must form empty responses to almost-empty rooms of journalists (few journalists attend, because of the emptiness) who ask desultory questions.... His modest demeanor must suggest that the NCAA is an academic organization first, concerned with the intellectual and moral development of athletes primarily, and with their ability to win football games secondarily. His demeanor must somehow background the corrupt athletic industrial complex that is the reality of the situation, and foreground something that looks like academic integrity.

Brand certainly does this adequately, and therefore, UD supposes, earns his salary. He is not bad at saying with a straight face that big-time university football is terrific for universities, and that athletes are students first, plus great role models for their peers....

You begin to understand Stanley Fish's profound distaste for defenses of university educations that rest on their morally improving nature.
Organizations like the NCAA cynically play on this idea -- they flatten the university to *nothing more* than a character-development location, and they endlessly invoke -- Brand endlessly invokes -- simplistic ethical language, simplistic moral-uplift language -- to describe universities. It's an effective way to avoid what universities, as Fish rightly stresses, are really about: learning something. You can disagree with the amoral approach Fish takes to universities, but you can understand, given the dominance of the culture of sports and other forms of pious anti-intellectualism at American universities, how he arrived at that approach.

Now, on her way to the airport, and reviewing the lush and hollow spectacle of the NCAA convention, UD reminds herself of something the president of Florida's New College said about a university education:

The school is called a "liberal arts" college, he said, "to draw attention to the idea that this education liberates you from provincialism, from your fears, it frees you from your self-centeredness."
Universities should be unapologetically about freedom from the sort of provincialism that makes many athletes dupes of a sophisticated system that uses and discards them; they should be about educating people away from simplistic views of the world that can be manipulated by cynical and self-centered people.

 

 

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