California second state to forbid colleges from social media monitoring of athletes

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California will become second state to ban colleges from requiring access to students' social media accounts. In other states, that's exactly what athletic departments are doing.

NCAA erred in its involvement in Penn State (essay)

As the lurid details of the events that have catapulted Pennsylvania State University into the headlines have emerged, the rush to impose consequences has seemingly overwhelmed good sense and thoughtful, deliberative reaction. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s imposition of penalties -- taking away victories earned on the football field, banning post season bowl participation, loss of athletic scholarships, and a fine of $60 million -- seem, with one exception, to miss what ought to be the targets of everyone’s understandable wrath.

In addition, there are serious questions about how and why the NCAA has chosen to assert jurisdiction over these matters, and what precedent this establishes for future events involving NCAA member schools.

First, the wrongdoers. From all the evidence assembled and made public, Jerry Sandusky has been convicted by a jury and will undoubtedly spend the balance of his days in prison. Former President Graham Spanier and the two administrators implicated in the cover-up of the Sandusky crimes have been fired. Two, and possibly all three, face criminal prosecution, as well. Coach Paterno has died. With the exception of the taking away of victories from the team, which officially denies Paterno and his family the distinction of being the football coach with the most victories of any in history, none of the other penalties imposed affect any of the individuals involved in the events.

Second, the victims. While the actual victims of the horrendous crimes have the satisfaction of Sandusky’s conviction, and will be entitled to civil remedies against the individual wrongdoers, and very likely the university, the NCAA punishment does nothing to compensate the children or their families. The money penalties are going to establish a new charitable enterprise to focus attention on child abuse, a worthy cause, but will do nothing to help the victims associated with this tragedy.

Third, the new victims. The NCAA sanctions affecting bowl games and athletic scholarships will now affect athletes who have done absolutely nothing wrong. And the financial sanctions risk impacting the entire student body and faculty at Penn State. While the NCAA has gotten most of the headlines, the Big Ten Conference imposed its own sanctions on Penn State, including its annual share of television revenue for four years. In combination with the NCAA fine, the university will lose $73 million. Add to that sum the expected funds necessary to resolve civil cases that the crime victims will be entitled to receive, plus litigation costs, and the sums involved could, according to one of the trustees, approach $500 million. There is the further concern that liability insurance carriers could decline coverage of legal claims if it is shown the wrongdoing by Penn State officials was intentional. Typically, coverage is limited to acts of negligence.

With the athletic program hobbled by the sanctions and loss of television revenue, funding the payment of these matters will likely require that either students, through tuition hikes and/or fees, or taxpayers be required to pay up. And as this all plays out, is there any doubt students who might ordinarily choose to attend Penn State will go elsewhere, and a superb faculty, assembled over decades, will slowly but surely drift away to other institutions where resources will not be drained paying for the sins of five people long gone from the institution? 

Obviously, not all of these potential consequences are due to the NCAA and Big Ten conference. But the piling on, without a clearly defined purpose and questionable subject matter jurisdiction, is unnecessary, at best, and sadly misdirected.

There is no evidence that the events in any way involved intercollegiate competition, improperly recruiting athletes, providing improper benefits to athletes or any other rule in the NCAA’s micromanaging of competition-related conduct. The use of the notion of “institutional control” as the basis for the NCAA’s jurisdiction in this instance can now be used to assert NCAA sanctions in any event that involves a university and its athletic program employees and students. This seems significantly beyond the legitimate jurisdiction of, and purpose for, the NCAA.

While public universities have been experiencing reductions of state financial support for many years, few if any could withstand the dimension of the impacts that are being imposed, without serious consequences to the academic mission of the institution.

So what has the NCAA really accomplished?  With the exception of the Paterno victory reduction (which seems entirely appropriate), its sanctions miss the wrongdoers, miss the crime victims, and in a sense, create a new category of victims (students, faculty, taxpayers and the academic vitality of the university). 

The precedent being set raises, in my mind, serious questions about the future. One example: what if the tragic shooting events several years ago at Virginia Tech involved either an athlete or former employee of the athletic department, and as an evaluation later determined, the school had not undertaken sufficient steps to warn other students of the danger as events unfolded. Would such circumstances call for NCAA sanctions over and above the criminal and civil justice responses?  After all, the crimes would have been related to the athletic department, and the university’s “institutional control” was found to be inadequate.

The NCAA’s actions in this instance, leaving aside any arguments about due process, feel more like politicians, each trying to one up each other offering competing, kneejerk legislative proposals in response to the world’s latest tragedy, rather than the thoughtful, effective, and properly targeted sanctions expected of respected educators.

Robert L. King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

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Essay: Academic leaders shouldn't be sure they wouldn't have acted like their counterparts at Penn State

Here is the lesson people want to learn from the Penn State scandal: There are some smarmy folks out there who, through a combination of mindless groupthink and fear of antagonizing important people, will do unimaginable things, like not reporting child abusers to the police; perhaps there are other "Penn States" out there or possibly there even are people at our own institution who are hiding seriously dirty linen about which we know nothing. The one thing we know for sure is that we never would act the way those people did.

That’s the wrong lesson. Here’s why.

In the 1960s, the late Stanley Milgram did a series of studies while a faculty member at Yale University. Although the initial studies are old, they have been replicated many times since, across time and place. Milgram would have two study participants enter a room. One would be assigned, seemingly at random, to the role of learner and the other to the role of teacher. Unbeknownst to the teacher, who was a naïve subject, the role assignments were rigged and the learner was a confederate of the experimenter's.

The teacher and learner were informed that they would participate in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. On successive trials, the teacher would read to the learner a list of words to be learned and the learner would repeat back the words he remembered. When the learner made a mistake, the teacher would use an apparatus that would deliver an electric shock to the learner.

The apparatus was designed so that each successive shock would be heavier than the last one. Shocks on the device were arranged in increments of 10 volts, ranging from just 10 volts up to 450 volts. The switches at the high end, near 450 volts, had labels like “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “extreme shock,” “danger: severe shock,” and at the top of the scale, “XXX.” The teacher was given a sample 45-volt shock to show him that the apparatus really did deliver shocks and that they were painful.

Once the experiment started, the learner began to make mistakes. So the teacher shocked him. (In the initial experiments, participants were male, but later experiments involved female participants as well.) After a while, the teacher heard the learner groan, later scream, still later complain about his heart, yet later demand that the experiment stop, and finally fall silent. It might seem that the teacher would stop delivering shocks once the learner started to protest, but the experimenter would reply, when the teacher indicated he wanted to stop the experiment, with responses ranging in a graded sequence: "Continue please”…. "Go on" …. "The experiment requires that you continue" …."It is absolutely essential that you continue" …."You have no choice."

As you may know, the experiment was not really on the effects of punishment on learning but rather on obedience. Psychiatrists asked to estimate what percentage of subjects would administer the maximum level of shock estimated that it would be less than 1 percent. In fact, it was roughly two-thirds.

When I have taught introductory psychology, I have asked my 150 or so students how many of them would have gone to the end, and typically, only one or two jokers say they would have. The rest of the students strenuously deny they would have administered the maximum shock. Yet, roughly two-thirds of them would have gone to the end of the shocks, even though they cannot imagine they would have. They do not yet realize the harm of which they are capable. We all are susceptible to believing that only other people act in ways that are heartless, cruel, or indifferent, and then possibly rationalizing them as humane.

Fortunately for the learner in the Milgram experiments, the shock machine was a phony and, as mentioned earlier, the learner was a confederate and a trained actor. The experiments as originally conducted never would pass muster with today’s ethical requirements because subjects could not be adequately debriefed. No matter what the debriefing said, roughly two-thirds of the subjects in a typical running of the study left the experiment knowing that they might have killed the subject had the shocks been real.

The usual interpretation of the Milgram experiment has been that people are remarkably obedient and that it is because of this typically unrealized potential for obedience that horrors like the Nazi or Rwandan genocide or the brutal reprisals in Syria could take place. In the July 2012 issue of Psychological Science, Stephen D. Reicher of the University of St. Andrews and his colleagues have suggested that “agents of tyranny actively identify with their leaders and are motivated to display creative followership in working toward goals that they believe those leaders wish to see fulfilled.” In other words, people don’t just passively obey; they behave proactively to curry favor with their admired leaders or role models. Sound familiar?

In a related demonstration, Philip Zimbardo, formerly a professor of psychology at Stanford, randomly assigned college students to one of two groups: prison guard or prisoner. He placed them in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department and then observed how they acted. To his dismay and the dismay of anyone who has since learned of the study, the guards rather quickly started acting like sadistic prison guards and the prisoners started acting in ways betraying learned helplessness — they were essentially browbeaten into submission.

In yet another study, published in 1973 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, John Darley and C. Daniel Batson found that even most divinity students on their way to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan failed to help a person in obvious distress if their other priorities, such as arriving on time for the lecture, were more important to them at the moment. The study showed that intense ethical training provides relatively little protection against bad behavior in an ethically challenging situation. Since that study was published, episodes of horrendous abuse of children at the hands of clergy, while other clergy in the know stood idly by, have reinforced this lesson in gory detail. Really, no training offers ironclad protection.

If there is one thing that social psychologists have learned over the past decades, it is the enormous but often hidden power of situational pressures. The lesson of the Penn State tragedy is not that there are heartless bureaucrats out there who are willing to sacrifice the well-being of children for the sake of the reputation of the university and its athletic teams. Almost certainly there are. However, the real lesson of the Penn State tragedy is that, given certain situational constraints, virtually all of us could behave the way those administrators allegedly did. These circumstances include severe pressures to conform accompanied by fear of punishment for noncompliance, desire to please or curry favor with one or more persons in a position of power, rationalization of one’s actions, and what I have called "ethical drift" — one’s declining ethical standards in the face of group norms whereby one is not even aware that one’s standards are dropping.

To be clear: The power of situational variables in no way excuses bad behavior. Rather, such variables should help us understand, in part, why such behavior occurs in certain situations, why we are all potentially susceptible to it, and most importantly, what we can do about it.

How do you avoid falling to the trap of ethical drift? First, you need to realize that almost anyone, including yourself, is capable of behaving abysmally under certain circumstances. Second, you need rather regularly to ask yourself whether situational pressures are leading you to behave in ways that once would have seemed totally inappropriate and wrong to you. Third, you need to ask yourself whether you are rationalizing behavior that once would have seemed unacceptable to you. And fourth, you need to be willing to take a stand and do the right thing, realizing that although there may be serious short-term costs to acting ethically, you are willing to accept those costs so you can live with yourself and others over the long term.

One last thing: You may still be thinking that although other people may fall prey to ethical drift — or even a sudden drop off the ethical cliff — you would never succumb to situational pressure to conform. For example, you may just feel you know you would not have gone to the top of the shock apparatus or have let a child abuser continue to abuse children, regardless of the situational pressures placed on you. You may be right, but research has not found any personality characteristics that reliably predict who will succumb to such extreme pressures and who won’t.

Put another way, we all have to be in the situation to know what we would do. So you may wish to reserve judgment for now. When, sooner or later, you are in an ethically challenging situation, as the Penn State administrators were, you then will have an opportunity to learn something about yourself. If you resist succumbing to the temptation just to go along, you then will be able to feel pride in yourself, as would we all. As for me, I find what happened at Penn State absolutely abhorrent and cannot believe that I would have acted in the way those administrators appear to have, but I know I cannot be absolutely sure of what I would do unless I found myself actually in such a situation under comparable pressures.

When crowds of fans shouted, “We are Penn State!” they did not realize just how right they were. Potentially, at least, we all are Penn State, both in its best aspects and its worst.

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Leadership Ethics at Oklahoma State University. He also is president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and past president of the American Psychological Association. The opinions expressed in this article, however, are entirely his own.

Criticism of athletics spending in wake of Penn State unlikely to slow growth

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Experts often cite escalating revenues and spending in athletics as a driver in the culture that, according to the Freeh report, helped enable the Penn State scandal. But don't look for the cash flow to slow any time soon.

Let Penn State play football, but without its fans (essay)

In the spring of 2009 the Italian football (soccer) club Juventus – as wealthy and powerful a club as exists in Europe – was forced to play a game with no fans in attendance because the crowd at a game had been racially abusive to another team’s player.

During the 2011-2012 Dutch soccer season, AFC Ajax – one of the two dominant clubs in that nation’s athletic scene – played a match in an empty stadium after a fan ran onto the field and attacked a visiting team player.

This spring, the Italian top-level football club Genoa was required to play its final two home games “behind closed doors” because of crowd violence at a previous match.

Latest Penn State Developments
With NCAA poised to announce
penalties against the university
Monday, campus officials take
Joe Paterno's statue outside
the football stadium.

All around the world, the penalty for toxic sport culture is the same: teams, rich teams, poor teams, powerful teams, unknown teams, are required to play games in silent, empty stadia, often without television as a local option, denied income and in-house support, while the fans hopefully learn – the hard way – that there are things more important than athletics.

Now, we, in American higher education, have a good reason to learn from the planet we share but hardly ever actually interact with as equals. When the culture of sport is the issue, attack the culture of the sport by cutting off its oxygen supply: remove the fans from the scene of their crimes.

There is no doubt that the “culture of reverence” (the words of the Freeh report) for Penn State football created the conditions in which the cover up of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes could not only occur, but go on for 14 years. There is no doubt that the culture of football worship – and Joe Paterno worship – in State College, Pa., allowed decades of crimes to occur in silence: the sexual harassment and discrimination by the university’s former women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for one, the many reported but unprosecuted crimes by Nittany Lions football players from 2002 to 2008 exposed by ESPN for another.

And there is little doubt that it is a culture unchallenged at Pennsylvania State University, which, since the scandal broke eight months ago, has put no sanctions on its football program, has crowed about continued donations, has sent the team off to a bowl game, and has, frighteningly, suggested as its one action, that the showers and locker room at the Lasch Football Building be renovated lest Penn State football players "feel uncomfortable."

Allie Grasgreen’s article last week on Inside Higher Ed, Must Penn State Cleanse?, dealt with the need for a “grand gesture,” such as shutting down the football program for one or more seasons. “I can’t see any other action that shows that great intersection of wanting to do better -- introspection, remorse, pain, leadership, humanity, empathy -- in its real sense,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport and Society program. “If they’re hoping for football to return to prominence, wouldn’t they want it also under a cleansed brand?”

“The board has an imperative to take strong, demonstrable action to both rein in and possibly even punish the football program itself, as it would other renegade programs within the institution,” the article quote former University of Michigan president James J. Duderstadt as writing.  But Grasgreen also pointed out the many “too big to fail” excuses for why Penn State football must march on, almost all of which are related to the financial consequences of broken contracts or the perception that innocent athletes are being punished.

So, if march on the Nittany Lions must, let them march on in silence behind the padlocked gates of Beaver Stadium for the next four years, or long enough to break, conclusively, that culture of reverence. Let there be no “Paternovilles” (by any name), let there be no more embarrassing moments of faux piety as we witnessed during the Nebraska-Penn State game last autumn. Allow the players to play, insist that Penn State pay its contractual commitments, allow the Big Ten to have its right number of games televised everywhere but the State of Pennsylvania, but send an unmistakable message that Penn State exists for some reason other than to provide Saturday afternoon entertainment eight days a year.

Throughout my watch of Penn State since the Sandusky arrest I have been privileged to be in communication with a very important member of the Penn State community, Matt Bodenschatz, a “non-traditional” student who immediately began challenging his university’s response to the scandal in November of last year. “I have something unpopular to say,” Bodenschatz wrote bravely on November 13, “I see everywhere -- in your editorials on your social media pages, in your subversively-written chalk messages printed all over campus -- your desperate insistence that ‘We are still Penn State.’ And each of these that I come upon creates in me a feeling of isolating sadness and emptiness. It reinforces in me what I have long felt – that the realities of victims and the realities of observers are worlds apart.”

Then he adds, “Because my community -- the survivor community, the victim community -- doesn’t get to boast of being unchanged.”

Since that day I have watched Bodenschatz work – through his group Voices4Victims– to educate his peers, his classmates, his community, his university, even his alumni association on the horrific symbolism of Penn State “moving on,” “getting back to normal.”

For if Penn State is allowed to casually return to “normal” this September, its Saturdays filled with crowds tailgating and cheering, the band playing, the party atmosphere, neither Bodenschatz nor any other victim within the Penn State community gets a true chance to heal. “It’s easy to get over this,” we’ll be saying. “See, a few months and it’s all in the past.” To allow that to happen would be a violation of all that it truly means to be an educational institution.

In a comment on Grasgreen’s article, Sanford Thatcher, the distinguished former director of the Penn State University Press, insists that, “There was no attempt by anyone in athletics to pull its programs away from "core values" of the university and embrace a "commercial culture" instead.” And he asks, incredibly, “Exactly what "university mission" was abandoned in favor of football?”

It is for Mr. Thatcher, and the students of Penn State, that this teachable moment must be embraced. We must teach all that the mission of any university, the mission of any educational institution, the mission of any educated person, includes the obligation to serve and protect society – especially society’s most vulnerable. That our mission includes the obligation to behave honestly and ethically, and that it includes an obligation to demonstrate, and to teach, humane and appropriate behavior.

The teaching of this cannot take place in the course of business as usual in State College. That gap Bodenschatz speaks of, between the realities of the victims and the realities of the observers, is clearly too vast to be bridged five days a week if on day six we argue, as loudly as possible, the opposite.

We can’t shut down Penn State football? Fine. Let them play. But let them play in silence while the business of education goes on.

Ira Socol is a research and teaching assistant at Michigan State University.

NCAA cracks down on "course shopping" at Caltech

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Is one of the most academically rigorous universities in the United States really lacking in institutional control of athletics?

Nike removes Paterno name from child care center

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Polls are appearing everywhere over whether Pennsylvania State University should remove the statue of Joe Paterno outside the football stadium. And many people who once revered the late coach are agonizing over the independent report released today that faults Paterno (and other Penn State officials) for not doing more to protect the victims of Jerry Sandusky.

Report finds alumni giving, among other areas, correlated with football success

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Report says college football success is correlated with increases in alumni giving, applications, academic reputation and incoming students' SAT scores.

Big Ten and Ivy League to study head trauma in college sports

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Collaboration between the Big Ten and Ivy League will be the biggest research project to date examining concussions in sports; potential is huge, officials say.

Review of Marc Perelman, "Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague"

It always feels awkward to find that a publisher has sent me a new book on sports. As someone who escaped the sort of small Texas town where high school football is a sacrament, I’m averse to following athletics of any kind, unless watching professional bowling on TV every so often counts, which it probably doesn’t. The only other exception that comes to mind is an abiding fascination with Muhammad Ali. (But at this stage, Ali is as much a minor figure in world history as he is a major one in the sweet science of fistics.)

So when a sports title arrives, I seldom look at it. But a book denouncing the entire athletic-industrial complex as a quasi-fascist form of social engineering and capitalist brainwashing? That stands out as a departure from the norm, anyway.

Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso), published in France last year, appears in English on the cusp of the Summer Olympics. It happens that the first three of its 19 essays are devoted to the Olympics, with particular emphasis on the ones held in Berlin (1936) and Beijing (2008). Perelman sees the official rhetoric of international goodwill as so many flowers covering the chains of oppression. Everyone involved in the spectacle becomes complicit with the regimes hosting the event.

Even to a defiantly unathletic nerd, that seems like going overboard, and it's hardly unrepresentative of Perelman's perspective. The games are just episodes in the rise of “an unequaled social, political, and ideological power … spreading across the planet like a pandemic” -- so that “the everyday lies of billions of people” become “contaminated, consumed, infected by its constant assaults, its capacity for insidious infiltration, its innocent-seeming mischief.”

Quelle horreur! But it gets worse. The author is a professor of aesthetics at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense, as well as an architect. “Art, as the main product of the imagination or as visualized thought,” he writes in another essay, “and games as free enjoyment of the human body, are being tendentiously supplanted by sport in the role of the sole activity, the sole theater of permanently visualized invention and pleasure.”

If hyperbole were a footrace, Perelman could outrun Achilles. He also enjoys the gift of endurance. An appendix to the book reprints “Twenty Theses on Sport,” first published in 1975. The rest of the book consists of glosses and elaborations of its arguments. Perelman indicates that “Twenty Theses” was a collectively authored text, from the twilight of the far-left intellectual activity inspired by the events of May ’68.  He makes a brief reference to how badly the French Communist Party took this intervention. (I wish he’d said more about that. It bears mentioning that L’Humanité, for many years the CP’s official organ, still prides itself on being one of the first newspapers to have a sports page.)

The critique that Perelman et al. framed in the mid-1970s was very simple: Organized athletics were just one more aspect of social alienation, serving only “to fill the masses’ minds with trivia to keep them from thinking about political struggle.” Perelman’s two essays on the structure and function of the modern stadium play variations on the stupefaction thesis. The first of them is devoted to restating -- a number of times, and in various registers -- the point that the crowd in a stadium gets so noisy during a game that you can’t hear yourself think. (Others have noticed this, of course, but without drawing out the dystopian implications, and certainly not at such length.) The second essay, presumably written some years later, offers sundry Baudrillard-esque reflections on the Jumbotron.    

The 20 theses are succinct, but Perelman develops them, or at least expands them, at some length, often through a mode of description it is tempting to call “hysterico-phenomenological.” His first essay on the stadium is perhaps the best illustration of this method:

“The mass completes the living circuit specific to the place, and its surface (the spectators in the stands) become an outer ‘skin’ twitching and rippling with the whole range of emotions, blotched too with eruptions of neurosis. As with the visual, so with the aural: during the game, the energies of increasingly energized spectators are released in surges of sound, a mass wave-form surface like a sticky liquid, rising and falling in volume with the emotional state of the mass. The spectating mass in the stadium ‘builds’ itself into a profoundly unified ‘architected’ surface, in symbiosis with the concrete and steel frame whose vibrating and rippling skin it has become, with a liquid, slick sound-surface animated by a living emotional wave….”

Let me interrupt to say that this excerpt is in many ways typical of the whole book, given both its repetitiveness (for the ellipses, read “plenty more of the same”) and the evident strain on its metaphor’s coherence (the “sound-surface” is both slick and sticky).

Picking up a bit further along, we read that, in a stadium,“The voice of the mass, like an event horizon in space/time, is capable of modifying the place when at maximum intensity.” Here, again, we find an homage to Baudrillard -- in particular to his weakness for making scientific references in ways he didn’t quite understand. The influence of the hyperreal is transmitted by proxy, like a subatomic virus in the mainframe of an ionized genome.

The book's center of gravity, its enabling presupposition, can be found in the second of the 20 theses: “Sport as an institution is the product of a historical turning point. Sport appeared in England, the birthplace of the capitalist mode of production, at the beginning of the modern industrial epoch.”

This is not, strictly speaking, true. But Perelman is not someone to tolerate a beautiful theory being roughed up by a gang of rude facts. His discussions of the Olympics mention the ancient games one time, very much in passing. Elsewhere, he does allow for the existence of “old-world physical contests like Real Tennis, the many ancient regional variants of football, or the polo-like Central Asian game of buzkashi, played with a dead goat.” (Bukkasi is the national sport of Afghanistan, where the modern industrial epoch is not likely to be welcomed for some time yet, although it now seems to have a small  following -- in modified form, sans goat -- in the United States.)

So organized games existed in ancient and feudal societies, and some of them do bear an unmistakable resemblance to the sort of thing now shown on ESPN. Yet “sports as an institution” remains essentially capitalist, because these other athletic endeavors don’t count. “Sports as an institution,” for Perelman, exists only by virtue of globalization, mass media, and the need for commodified leisure-time entertainment. Isn’t that a circular definition? Perhaps, but there’s a fine line, sometimes, between dialectics and tautology.

Another dimension of the argument is that sport “is a powerful factor of sexual repression” -- even though the calendar for the French national rugby team offers “a blend of sport and pornography (‘sporn’ for short) displayed in shameless homo-Greco-gigolo style.” At the same time, the modern stadium “engenders the possibility of an extreme confusion between collective orgasm and the individual’s feeling of dissolving, losing, melting his conscious self inside a macrocosm.”

Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes the words “spork” and “Jumbotron” sound even more lewd than before.

Barbaric Sport ends with an open letter, signed by a number of intellectuals, calling for a moratorium on building new sports stadiums in Europe. They represent “an astonishing extravagance of public expenditure,” especially in the midst of an economic crisis: “The cost of building stadiums, then their permanent upkeep and the general maintenance of sites which most of the time are not in use, amounts to colossal financial losses that increasingly tear holes in state budgets.”

The complaint seemed valid -- and familiar. I’d heard broadly similar concerns expressed by my friend Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation and at one point the leftist-columnist-in-residence at Sports Illustrated. When Dave talks about football or basketball, it almost makes me want to follow a team. He’d seen a prepublication copy of Perelman’s book, and I wondered what he’d thought of it.

“The kind of analysis that Perelman provides," he wrote back to me by e-mail, "is honestly just not very helpful in understanding the modern age of sports.” While I’d been distracted by the book’s hectoring tone and conceptual shakiness, Dave focused on its extremely one-sided picture of competitive athletics as monolithic, meaningless, and brain-numbing. He knew better.

“Sports has always had two traditions running through it,” Zirin said, “and we need to be able to understand and reckon with both. It's an institution that can produce a George Steinbrenner but also produce a Muhammad Ali. It's an institution that revels in sexist imagery, but it's also given us Title IX, radical legislation that has changed the quality of life for tens of millions of American women. It's an institution where there are teams called the Washington Redskins and it's an institution where racism has been challenged more visibly than perhaps in any other arena in U.S. society (Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Smith and Carlos.)”

As a contemporary instance, he gave the example of the Miami Heat: “This past year, they did what we are told athletes no longer do, and posed in their hoodies after the murder of Trayvon Martin. They used their hyper-exalted platform to try and shape their world. That should be recognized and celebrated.”

And finally, Dave addressed the most nagging problem with the book -- the aspect that had reminded me of how upset the Puritans were when James I issued a proclamation allowing (even encouraging) his subjects to play games on holidays and Sundays, once they were out of church:

“I don't think Perelman really appreciates that the number one reason people watch sports isn't because they are brain-dead sheep, but because they derive joy from the experience. And in our society, for far too many people, joy is in short supply.”


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