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'Confessions of a Spoilsport'

August 27, 2007

William C. Dowling is, first and foremost, a professor of English, specializing in 17th and 18th century British and American literature. But like a relatively small number of established faculty members, he has developed another highly visible, non-academic specialty, as a critic of big-time college sports. Dowling was among a band of professors, students and alumni who led an (ultimately failed) effort to get Rutgers University to drop out of National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I-A athletics during the mid-1990s, and like many such campaigns, it exacted a toll on Dowling.

He recounts his experiences in a new book, Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University, published this month by Penn State University Press.

In the interview that follows, he discusses his views on the place of sports in American society, the uncomfortable interaction of high-octane sports and high-powered academic standards, and the viability of faculty efforts to change college sports, among other things.

Q: Spoilsport is more polite than a lot of what you've been called because of your views on the role of big-time college sports at Rutgers. Why does the subject of athletics and higher education generate such passion?

A: The source is a hidden social antagonism: a deep hostility to what's understood as a "higher" culture of ideas and learning. The idea -- completely erroneous, in my view, but incredibly powerful -- is that anyone who values learning for its own sake is somehow trying to be "better than" people who are less well educated. This antagonism goes back to the earliest years of the American republic. Years ago, writing a book about the literary opposition to Jeffersonian democracy, I came across it again and again. In 1806, for instance, a writer in the Port Folio magazine bitterly reports that the North Carolina legislature has stripped funds from the state university because it has decided that higher education is inconsistent with American democracy. The legislators had discovered, says this writer, that "it created an aristocracy of the learned, who would trample upon the rights and liberties of the ignorant, and that an equality of intellect was necessary to preserve the equality of rights."

In American higher education, this is the attitude that dominates Division I-A booster subculture, which uses sports to establish what I call "symbolic ownership" of the university -- to show, for instance, that though Gridiron State U. may have classrooms and students and professors as window-dressing, no alien outpost of "higher culture" -- a world where people talk about Wittgenstein or read Shakespeare or marvel over the intricacies of RNA replication -- really exists behind the façade. The real Gridiron State is the one you see on Saturday, with low-SAT football players swarming around the field, a hundred thousand screaming fans packed into the stadium, and the president of the university and a bunch of state legislators looking on from their skyboxes. The booster subculture at the heart of all this -- in the book, the Wolfpack Club at North Carolina State is the one I examine most extensively -- turns incredibly vicious when it perceives a threat to its control. The idea of "symbolic ownership" sounds abstract to some people.

But it's a real phenomenon. To prove it, all you have to do is imagine a scenario in which Division I-A football and basketball teams were suddenly turned into minor league franchises: same coaches, same stadium, same training facilities, but no connection to any university. The University of Nebraska stadium, for instance, holds about 80,000 spectators. It's packed for every home game. But, as a Nebraska alumnus I know says, if you made the team a minor league franchise -- that is, if they were just the "Lincoln Cornhuskers" -- they'd draw about six spectators. The rest would be home watching NFL football on TV. It's the "University of Nebraska" tag that draws them: the exhilarating experience of showing, week after week, that the university is still securely in the hands of the same culture that watches American Idol and reads People magazine.

If you doubt that the booster subculture I'm talking about is vicious, by the way, all you need to do is listen to their voices in Confessions of a Spoilsport. The quotes were taken from posts on booster boards around the country. What you hear is an anti-intellectual subculture incredibly sensitive to anything they perceive as a threat to their control over the university. They can't spell. They punctuate badly. They're obscene beyond belief. But they do know that they own the university, and they're not about to give that up.

Q: You cut your teeth as an academic at the University of New Mexico during the 1970s when its men's basketball program was enveloped in one of the worst academic scandals in NCAA history, involving grade buying and falsification of transcripts, among other things. How did the scandal known as "Lobogate" shape your perceptions?

A: It wasn't the Lobogate scandal that woke me up. It was watching the academic decline of UNM as they were building themselves into a national basketball power. I was serving on a couple of committees that gave me access to admissions and other data, and I gradually began to suspect that the rising emphasis on Division I-A basketball was driving more and more top-echelon students in New Mexico to out-of-state universities.

Later research bore that suspicion out. The account given in Confessions of a Spoilsport is based on materials from the Calvin Horn Collection at UNM. Horn was chair of the UNM Board of Regents during Lobogate, and the collection -- which includes, for instance, the complete transcript of the federal trial of basketball coach Norm Ellenberger for fraud and forgery of academic transcripts for his basketball players -- is a treasure trove of internal university documents. Horn was himself a UNM graduate, and something of an intellectual -- though he ran a local oil company, he wrote two self-published books on New Mexico history -- and he was dismayed at the speed with which UNM was going downhill academically. I quote a speech where he's trying to alert New Mexico citizens to the danger, but nobody listened.

Horn, though, never made the connection between big time basketball and UNM's academic decline. But, almost by chance, I did make the connection when still teaching at UNM. That's the story I tell in chapter one. At most state universities, as at UNM, the end result of domination by Division IA athletics is remedial-level education. But in Confessions of a Spoils port, I also make a point of showing that even the tiny number of "better" universities who pursue big time sports -- Michigan among the publics, for instance, and Duke among the privates -- are being seriously damaged. I expect my discussion of Duke, especially, to stir up a bit of controversy, not least because the evidence I give all comes from inside Duke itself. It isn't my analysis: it comes from people who teach at Duke or who have gone there as students.

Q: The book is mostly the story of how the growing influence of athletics at Rutgers changed the university and of a campaign by students, alumni and faculty to turn back that tide. In what ways did the increasing emphasis on sports change Rutgers, and why were you so dead set against it?

A: I was dead set against it because my New Mexico experience had alerted me to what was going on at Rutgers, at which I'd only recently arrived. You've got to remember that Rutgers is a very old university. It was founded before the American Revolution, and has a distinguished academic and intellectual tradition.

You've also got to remember that Rutgers went into "professionalized" college athletics very late. It became a full member of the Big East conference only in 1994, six years after I'd joined the English department. Before that, for over a century, its traditional opponents in athletics had been schools like Colgate, Princeton, Columbia, Lafayette, Bucknell, etc. -- the schools that today make up the Division I-AA non-athletic-scholarship Ivy and Patriot Leagues.

As I explain in the book, it was my students who mounted the early resistance to "big time" college sports at Rutgers. There was a New Mexico tie-in, but not in the way you'd expect.

It happened like this. I was so amazed at the quality of my students when I first came to Rutgers that I occasionally exclaimed out loud about it. After UNM, it was a new thing to me to be teaching students who not only could understand The Winter's Tale or Paradise Lost, but who loved Shakespeare and Milton. They kept asking me what was so remarkable about that. So I tried to explain what it had been like to teach at UNM -- students who, far from being able to read Shakespeare or Milton or Henry James, would have had trouble reading a New York Times op-ed. And I told them about Lobogate -- forged transcripts for athletes, bogus courses, functionally illiterate players being passed off as "college students," the power of the Lobo Club -- as part of the story. So when our board of governors hired a Tulane administrator named Francis Lawrence as president and began to beat the drums for Big East athletics, the students were worried that it might be a move toward turning Rutgers into a place like UNM. They scented danger, and they were right.

In short, alumni and faculty resistance crystallized around a tiny core of very bright students who decided they weren't going to sit still while Rutgers got transformed into a sports factory. As in the fairy tale where the child points out that the emperor is naked, it was a case where the grownups were taught to see by the young.

Q: You characterize the Rutgers 1000 campaign as successful, up to a point. But if anything, the university seems more committed to big-time sports now than it was a decade ago, with a nationally competitive football team where there once was a perennial doormat. What went wrong, and have you given up the fight?

A: This isn't an easy matter to discuss. RU1000 dissolved itself when it had been successful in bringing about resignation of Francis Lawrence and -- as we then thought -- the selection of a new president who would lead the way in abolishing "athletic scholarships" and getting Rutgers into a Division I-AA non-athletic-scholarship conference like the Patriot League.

We made a fatal misjudgment about the new president. I don't want to go over the details here -- the whole story is told in the last chapter of Confessions of a Spoilsport -- so all I'll say is that it involves a large number of things we couldn't possibly have known about. The tale involves athletics scandals at the University of Washington, from which our new president came to Rutgers, problems with alcohol and marital infidelity, his relations with the University of Washington regents, and much more. It's a painful episode, and I found it personally painful to write that chapter. But it was absolutely necessary to do so, because there was no other way to let people outside the university understand why, exactly, the opposition to professionalized Div IA sports at Rutgers seemed otherwise so mysteriously to have collapsed.

The short answer to your question is this: when the Board of Governors -- which is essentially controlled by the Scarlet R Club, Rutgers' booster organization -- found themselves with a president so badly compromised that he was in no position to stand up to them on the sports issue, everything began to go full speed ahead. The results were predictable. Top New Jersey students have begun to avoid Rutgers in droves. The brightest students on campus are transferring out at an increased rate. Admissions standards are dropping. The school is now drawing students whose idea of "college" is drinking beer and painting their faces before football and basketball games. The football team is up there right next to places like Boise State in the national rankings. The Scarlet R boosters are ecstatic.

To answer the other part of your question, it's too early to tell yet whether or not Rutgers 1000 had any kind of permanent influence. It is true that Division I-A athletics is still a hotly-debated issue on campus, which is something you're not going to find at Nebraska or Ohio State or Tennessee. It's true that there are still alumni and parents' organizations doing their best to fight a rear guard action against big time athletics. But it's also true that the campus is increasingly dominated by a new kind of "party animal" student that, while common enough at places like UConn and West Virginia and Ohio State, had previously been been nonexistent at Rutgers. ( Confessions of a Spoilsport contains, by the way, detailed evidence of the increasing dominance of "party animal" students -- that is, of an ethos based on "parties, booze, and chicks," as one of them puts it in a sports board posting I quote in the book.)

Q: Lots of parties get a share of blame for the situation in your eyes for enabling the dependence on big-time sports: administrators, your faculty colleagues, boosters, trustees, sportswriters. Do athletes share in the blame, or are they the victims?

A: This is a sensitive issue. The standard line in anti-sports-corruption circles is to talk about Division I-A recruits as the "exploited victims" of the NCAA and its booster subculture. The idea is that they could have been physicists or neurosurgeons or Supreme Court justices, but somehow got sidetracked into spending hours practicing slam dunks, running at tackling dummies, injecting steroids, and forgetting to learn how to read. Then it's pointed out that most of them wind up being cast aside once they've used up their college eligibility -- the motif here, with violins playing in the background, is to recite the statistics showing how tiny a fraction make the NFL or NBA, while the rest wind up dying of drug overdoses or bagging groceries at Safeway -- and opposition to Division I-A sports is portrayed as a kind of rescue mission to save others from the same fate.

I've never bought that. As far as I can tell, Division I-A recruits are a pampered class of semi-professional athletes who, during their brief moment of celebrity, get almost everything an 18-22-year-old with fairly rudimentary desires could want: TV exposure, cars, girls, clothes, golden chains to hang around their necks.

I once addressed a class made up largely of Rutgers football and men's and women's basketball recruits. The exchanges after my lecture were spirited, as you might expect, but also good-natured enough. Then an inspiration came to me. I asked one of the young women -- this was Tasha Pointer, then the Big East scoring leader, now a WNBA player -- to consult with her teammates and tell me how many Division I-A women basketball players, if they could play in a professional minor league that allowed them to sharpen their skills and give them a good shot at making the WNBA, would choose to skip the whole charade of "college" -- books, assignments, the pretense of being a "student" -- and just play ball. They went into a huddle, then reported the answer: 85 percent. Then I asked the same question of the football players -- of whom, by the way, there were more than a dozen: this was a class filled with athletes picking up eligibility credits -- except positing the NFL as their goal. The answer: 95 percent.

I don't think the athletes are "to blame" here. How could they be? If you had a bunch of powerful grownups -- especially if you were a minority kid and they were whites who owned beer distributorships and Chevrolet franchises -- offering you everything you could imagine wanting if only you'd agree to go along with the pretense that you were a "college student," you'd be a fool to turn it down. But I also don't think they're "exploited."

Q: You wrote: "Over nearly a decade of struggle, Rutgers 1000 would come to understand that the threat of Div IA sports to academic values went far beyond athletics. The real enemy was commercialization: the erosion and then finally the extinction of the university as the last remaining social space in which learning -- that is, ideas and knowledge as a sphere of human consciousness in itself, one providing an essential perspective on the wider world of practical concerns -- had been able to hold out against marketing and advertising forces." Has that battle been lost nationally?

A.: God knows. That question is so complex, and so important, that it would take a thousand pages to try to even try to answer it. You're talking about the domination of American society by a consumerist ideology so complete that it penetrates literally every area of people's lives -- and, even more tragically, works powerfully to construct the consciousness of young people -- that university education, where it still exists as such, is a constant battle just win back a tiny bit of moral and psychic space from the big emptiness outside the classroom walls.

But I will say this. At a college or university where commercialized Div IA sports doesn't yet dominate -- sadly, this is increasingly limited to a handful of schools like the Ivies and the University of Chicago and small liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Swarthmore -- the institution still has a fighting chance to win back a bit of space. At sports factory schools -- the Ohio State where 100,000 screaming fans pack the stadium to watch someone like Maurice Clarett -- that's by and large not true. The battle there has probably been permanently lost.

Q: The history of higher education is strewn with failed efforts by faculty members, nationally and on individual campuses, to try to bring about meaningful change in big-time athletics. Does anything make you think that's likely to change going forward? Is there any incentive for professors to take on the sports programs at their institutions?

A: For faculty, there's no incentive to take on Div IA sports. I try very hard to explain all this in Confessions of a Spoilsport. The first thing to understand is that it's easier to move than to stay and fight. A good scholar and committed teacher who winds up at a sports factory will try to escape to a better institution as soon as possible.

I call this the "walking catfish syndrome." A few years ago, someone smuggled into the U.S. a species of catfish that could actually walk on land for limited periods. They got established in Florida, where they quickly became a terrible nuisance. They'd come out at night and attack toddlers and small dogs and cats, then vanish back into the pond when pursued.

So somebody in the Florida Fish & Game department had a bright idea: poison the ponds that were offering a refuge to the walking catfish. Kill them off.

He forgot one thing: the walking catfish could, in fact, walk. So they poisoned the ponds, killing everything in them that was alive -- slugs, snails, frogs, other species of fish -- and the catfish simply up and left for nearby ponds that hadn't been poisoned.

This is a parable about Div IA sports in American higher education, especially at sports factories. The faculty who have the publication record and the teaching reputation to move, do.

The second thing is that the faculty who can't get out -- those no other institution wants to take -- now realize that they're stuck where they are until they retire. To take on Div IA sports -- which, in most Div IA institutions, would mean taking on the central administration, since administrators at these schools are invariably chosen for being sports-compliant -- would be to find oneself face to face with the violent and vicious booster subculture I've already talked about.

Confessions of a Spoilsport gives one dramatic account of what happens to anyone who does this. It's the episode of Professor Linda Bensel-Meyers at the University of Tennessee. If you want to know why more faculty at Div IA institutions don't make a peep about sports corruption at their schools, read that chapter. It's an ugly episode, but everyone at a Div IA sports factory understands that it's just what would happen to other faculty members who tried to take on the sports juggernaut.

At Rutgers, on the other hand, it was very easy to organize faculty opposition. By the end of the struggle, the Rutgers 1000 Faculty Council had over four hundred members. But the whole point of writing about Rutgers in Confessions of a Spoilsport is that it's virtually unique in the world of Div IA athletics. Big-time sports is a very new thing on our campus. There is an ancient tradition of participatory athletics -- all those years of playing Colgate and Princeton and Columbia and Lafayette -- still vivid in the memories of alumni and faculty. The Scarlet R contingent on the Board of Governors, and Scarlet R itself, are still felt to be out of place within the larger institutional setting. Rutgers, in short, is still at the very beginning of a process that, at most public universities, has long since worked itself through to a dismal conclusion.

Q: Like a lot of professors who have criticized their institutions' sports programs, you've been called "anti-sports." Can big-time athletics programs co-exist with high-quality academics? You've championed the Ivy League model -- is it realistic at a public university?

A: I think it's more realistic than anyone realizes. When Rutgers 1000 thought it had won the struggle against Division I-A -- the part of the story recounted in the chapter entitled "The Hour of Victory" -- we talked a lot about what establishing a "Rutgers model" in American higher education might do for the rest of the country. If just one major public university managed to free itself from the yoke of Division I-A athletics, shifting to a strong emphasis on academic and intellectual values, how long would it be before other institutions saw that they could do the same?

You've got to remember that most Division I-A schools are losers in athletics. A few powerhouses dominate the televised spectacles -- "March Madness" and the holiday bowl games -- and everyone else serves as fodder. That opens up an exciting alternative possibility. In Confessions of a Spoilsport I tell in detail the story of The College of New Jersey -- formerly an obscure institution called Trenton State College -- that turned itself into a leading national liberal arts college through the simple expedient of raising its admissions and curricular standards when other small colleges were closing their doors. There's no reason in the world why most state universities couldn't do the same thing. Get rid of sports -- while keeping "participatory athletics" where real students play on the teams -- cut the university's ties to its booster subculture, and there's no place to go but up.

As for "imitating" the Ivy League, that's the first accusation any Division I-A booster will throw at you when you suggest that a state university might be serving a worthier purpose. But think about it for a second. There was a time when all public institutions saw themselves as being in the same business as Harvard and Yale and the others -- not as demanding intellectually, perhaps, and not quite as ambitious in their curricula, but basically as being devoted to shaping the minds of educated men and women who would then carry their values back into the larger society, providing a certain wisdom and perspective to those who hadn't gone on to higher education.

My favorite example of this is the autobiography of Mark Van Doren, who was a legendary teacher at Columbia, and whose teaching and books shaped several generations of young people at his own university and beyond. Van Doren grew up in the Midwest. He went to the University of Illinois as an undergraduate, and his account of his student years lets you see very clearly that both faculty and students 50 or 60 years ago viewed themselves as being involved in just the same enterprise as those at other universities. There's no inferiority complex, no note of intellectual anxiety, no frenzy of accusations about "elitism." In Van Doren's generation, some people went to Harvard, some to Williams, some to Nebraska or Illinois, and all to "college" as it was then understood to exist.

To talk about whether an Ivy League model is appropriate for any public institution that really wanted to be a good university, let's pretend for a second that we could recover Van Doren's perspective. Then the proposition that Ohio State, say, might want to "imitate" Harvard becomes entirely uncontroversial. This notion of "imitation" is, so far as I can see, something that's seen as wholly legitimate in any area where individuals or institutions want to get better. No young violinist feels insulted when you point out that she's trying to imitate Heifetz's fingering in a difficult passage. No chess player is embarrassed if he's caught studying Bobby Fischer's mating combinations in the Spassky match. No high school football coach will deny that he's trying his best to understand how a rival coach who's been beating him is doing it, and to incorporate the same methods.

In fact, sports may be the purest example of how this works. If Ohio State wins a national football championship, no Div IA booster in the country is going to be insulted if you say that you wish his team could be more like Ohio State. A booster whose college basketball team has been finishing at the bottom of its conference would be delighted to hear a new coach say that from now on the team will be trying to play more like Florida or Tennessee.

So suppose you could say this to such a booster: "Yes, we do want to imitate the Ivies, in the sense that we think we might learn something from studying what they do. The first thing we'll do here at Gridiron State is get rid of the semi-pro football and basketball franchises, abolish 'athletic scholarships,' and restore participatory athletics. The second thing we'll do is gradually raise admissions requirements so that every student on campus is capable of doing college-level work. The third thing we'll do is make every effort to hire stronger faculty, using the argument that our students have an increasingly high level of intellectual engagement. The fourth thing we'll do is put in place a solid core curriculum, giving students and faculty a shared body of knowledge within which to operate while learning to think analytically. The fifth thing -- an increasing involvement of faculty in undergraduate life -- is something we think will happen joyously and spontaneously when we've completed the earlier steps in the process. We'll never be an Ivy League school. We have no desire to be an Ivy League school. But we'll be a respectable and self-respecting institution of higher learning. And that, it seems to us, is something to be proud of."

 

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