The Ivy League’s new restrictions on the frequency with which football teams hold full-contact practices, designed to reduce player concussions, are unprecedented at the collegiate level. Given the lack of research on the topic, it’s difficult to say whether the league did too much, too little or just enough -- let alone to predict the effect the rules will have in the upcoming season.
On Feb. 26, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team defeated the University of Florida. Immediately after the contest, on their home court of Rupp Arena, Kentucky officials presented Coach John Calipari with the game ball to commemorate what was purported to be his 500th career victory. Officials from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, however, strongly disapproved of Kentucky’s laudatory gesture, saying that the evening’s victory actually marked Calipari’s 458th career win.
Seton Hill University, a small liberal arts school in southwestern Pennsylvania that until two years ago was officially a women's college, has hired a football coach. Why don't I feel like shouting "Go Griffins!"?
At a press conference introducing the new coach, a costumed mascot cavorts, while a helmet emblazoned with the school logo presides from the podium. I imagine myself asking the helmet, as Hamlet might, "Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?"
I don't have many positive associations with any sport, beyond lots of "quality time" with Dad in kiddie leagues.
In high school I once accidentally caught a pop fly ball in my baseball cap. I somehow managed a flabby toss to a teammate, who tagged a passing runner for a double play. But traumatic run-ins with a few testosterone-for-brains Neanderthals (including the batter of the aforementioned pop fly) loom far more powerfully in my memory.
The helmet is silent, its faceguard a hollow grin. It foretells a quiet, bookish campus transformed by the arrival of a marching band, pep band, and cheerleading squad.
The Sisters of Charity who founded Seton Hill saw a need to educate a neglected gender. By the mid 1990s, however, Seton Hill was unable to attract enough of these students to pay its bills. Perhaps a woman-centered environment simply wasn't perceived as necessary to the 17-year-olds who were the main recruitment focus.
The upperclass women on campus now were here before the men began arriving in large numbers, changing campus culture, two or three years ago. Some of the most concerned were the female athletes.
For our campus, Title IX, the federal law mandating gender fairness in athletics programs, means that the well-established women's teams had to compete with the brand-new men's teams for limited resources, such as practice time in the gym or workout time in the weight room. These are temporary growing pains -- a new athletics facility is scheduled to open in a few weeks, and more plans are in the works.
I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of my colleagues who believe that a stronger athletics program will help us meet our enrollment goals. Even with partial scholarships for some of the star athletes, the net result will be more income from tuition, which is good for the school.
But football? So soon?
I wish the lust for knowledge were sufficient to propel everyone through college. I realize a large part of society prefers the playing field to the library, and I've heard all the usual arguments about character and leadership, teamwork, setting personal goals, and so forth. I've also seen similar value systems thoroughly debunked. ( Death of a Salesman is a good place to start.)
Not too long ago, two Seton Hill athletes participated in an impromptu, late-night kinetics experiment involving a dozen mailboxes, a handful of parked cars, and baseball bats. The result was infamy and shame for themselves, their team, and the university. Alas, in this instance, none of the media coverage confused us with the better-known New Jersey school with a similar name, as is often the case.
When I think of other students who have the maturity, work ethic and intellectual drive to excel in the classroom, but spend 20 or 30 hours a week stocking shelves or bagging groceries (80% of our students also work), I feel simply sick. Most get no cheering crowds, no dedicated section on the university's home page, and no banquets celebrating their accomplishments.
Recruitment brochures promote the liberal arts as life-changing and empowering. Parents and alums happily lap that rhetoric, but recruiters must appeal to college-bound 17-year-olds -- folks at the most self-centered, hormone-addled, celebrity-obsessed, marketing-controlled, "voting-is-for-old-people" phase of their lives.
It would be financial suicide for a college to advocate the kind of academic austerity supported by Malcolm X, who rejected the "panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola" of the campus quad, in favor of the intellectual freedom of the cell block. "Where else but in a prison," he wrote, "could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?"
Most academics can incarcerate themselves when their job requires it, but I wasn't ready for that level of discipline when I was still a teenager. On a small scale, coaches at Seton Hill are trying to remove distractions and encourage their players' good study habits. Some teams, for instance, have mandatory study halls.
According to one student who works as a computer lab attendant, during study hall, teams take over two or three computer labs at a time, where they mostly goof off. Several students from different teams agreed: Following afternoon practice, they are "too tired" to work, so they treat study hall as social time -- driving away the non-athletes who had been busily working. "Boola-boola" wins.
Our university president and new football coach remain cheerfully on message: Students coming to Seton Hill University have no delusions of playing professional sports; they come to get a good education; they will play sports only on the side. I have no reason to doubt their earnestness, and every hope that they are right. I'm told that the first applicant for our football program had an SAT score 200 points higher than the school average.
But what does one do with student-athletes who are bright enough to compete intellectually with the best of the nonhyphenated students, but choose to save their best efforts for the playing field?
I think of the "rough beast" of Yeats's "The Second Coming." Will our future campus be a place where "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity"?
One athlete here recently drafted a research essay with the thesis that success in college means taking classes with the right teachers. Careful selection of teachers, he argued, will ensure that he maintain a GPA high enough to retain his eligibility to play sports. (I suggested that he examine in more detail the concept of studying.)
Another student broke down into tears when I caught him falsifying a source in a research paper. I can imagine extenuating circumstances that might encourage me to have mercy on someone who thus makes a mockery of my profession, but I saw no remorse from this student -- only terror at losing his athletic scholarship.
The chance to play as a starter for four years on a brand new team has drawn many men to our campus. At last fall's "meet your advisor" picnic, I smiled up at two towering, jersey-clad communications majors who apparently didn't check out our catalog before showing up for practice. One or two weeks into the term, after they learned that we don't have our own television station, these future anchormen were ready to transfer. A few months later, when I asked a bright undeclared freshman why he suddenly stopped doing his work, he said after his coach cut him from the team, he realized he didn't want to be here at all.
Some weeks I give my digital organizer a workout, arranging make-up work for athletes who miss classes for games. But how does one "make up" the missed bonding that takes place when, during a discussion of Margaret Edson's Wit, the class sits on the floor at my feet as I read aloud from The Runaway Bunny?
Athletics is the spoonful of sugar that helps otherwise unteachable (or at least unrecruitable) students swallow their liberal arts education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of men receiving B.A.s today isn't much higher now than it was in 1973, but the number of women receiving B.A.s has nearly doubled. Since the early '80s, more women have earned B.A.s and M.A.s than men, and they are rapidly catching up in professional degrees and Ph.D.s. Educated black women already have difficulty finding male partners who are their professional equals; this kind of disparity will soon affect the general population.
The rules of the game have changed since 1883, when the Sisters of Charity founded Seton Hill as a women's college. But the school's mission still involves serving the gender culturally discouraged from pursuing intellectual development.
Lure the men across the threshold with a ball, and then slap a mortarboard on their heads - if only we can get them to work.
Athletics continues to take on a larger role in campus culture. In order that no student will have to miss afternoon practice in order to attend class, starting next year, from 4-6 p.m. the undergraduate classrooms will be empty -- except for faculty attending committee meetings. While there is no official football team as yet, there are already about as many football coaches as full-time English faculty.
Yet, even as football looms ever closer, I have so far felt not the slightest pressure to water down my academic standards. In fact, our admissions standards are edging upwards.
Coaches make reasonable efforts to get their players to communicate with professors. Class sizes remain small. The school already has an excellent tutoring network in place for all students. Plans are well underway for a $12 million fine arts center. Programs expand; new faculty are hired; salaries rise noticeably.
If Seton Hill's football experiment works, the university will benefit. Society will also benefit, as a steady stream of brawny students will descend our tree-lined driveway more bookish and disciplined than when they first climbed it.
By embracing football, the school lofts a mighty "Hail Mary" pass to muscle-bound souls conditioned to respond to no other call. It pleases me to imagine my complicity in an institutional act of stealth charity, subverting the cultural machinery of athletics, using it to pry open young minds.
Football will not prevent good teaching from happening here. Students who are willing to work will still learn -- and many of those dedicated learners will be football players.
Perhaps in the years to come, with both conviction and intensity, I may find myself shouting "Go Griffins!" after all.
Dennis G. Jerz
Dennis G. Jerz is associate professor of English - New Media Journalism at Seton Hill University and publishes Jerz's Literacy Weblog. He is six feet tall, maintains his trim college weight of 165 (give or take five pounds), and still throws like a little girl.
The NCAA has received much good press for its newest definition of academic progress for students who play competitive intercollegiate sports. Called the APR, for Academic Performance Rate, this complex system measures whether, on a semester-to-semester basis and eventually on a four-year average basis, players on individual sports teams make academic progress sufficient to guarantee a minimum 50 percent graduation rate. This surely sounds like a good thing, but the principal beneficiaries of this change will be rich programs and the continued revenue growth of the NCAA college sports franchise, with minimal impact on the academic strength of many college sports teams.
To remind us all, the NCAA is a national franchising organization that regulates and awards franchises to individual colleges for their intercollegiate sports programs. In return, the franchisees, the colleges and universities, make handsome payments to the NCAA and agree to abide by the rules that apply to all institutional franchisees. These sports franchises have high value to almost all higher education institutions, even though most of them operate at a significant deficit, and the NCAA has a multiplicity of franchise levels it sells to its members. The key to the success of NCAA franchising, which has been in operation in one form or another for almost a century, is commercial product quality control. (For a discussion of this phenomenon see: The Sports Imperative in America’s Research Universities, 2004.)
Production quality means the same thing to intercollegiate sports as it does to all franchise operations: uniform operations, uniform rules, uniform products and controlled competition. The NCAA ensures the entertainment quality of its product by enforcing rules of play and competition, which it continually revises and reforms to improve the popularity of the games. Everyone in the business recognizes that college sports is a consumer entertainment product that generates very large profits for the NCAA executives and staff, as well as significant revenue to partially offset the costs of these franchised programs to participating schools.
This franchising business has succeeded for about a century because the institutions, through their organization of the NCAA, have consistently attempted to sustain a charming but almost impossible to deliver illusion: College sports display athletic competition between teams composed of students from comparable athletic programs who play for the glory of their institution and the joy of the sport.
The NCAA, in relentless defense of this idealized dream, tinkers with the competitive rules so the games are as entertaining as possible to watch, eliminates as much cheating as possible so the games are reasonably fair, and regulates the athletes as precisely and completely as it can to keep them looking like amateur students. Throughout its history, however, the NCAA has often had to revise the rules its franchisees must follow to prevent college sports from appearing too much like their professional counterparts.
College sports succeed as entertainment products because they are a different sort of entertainment from the professional versions. The media and producers of sports contests lead us to imagine that the critical difference comes from the players. These athletes, we hear, are real students because the colleges don’t pay them a direct, market rate salary, and because the athletes have only a short period of eligibility to play for a college team. The NCAA’s success in maintaining these illusions among the sports-consuming public and press is remarkable, and the appearance of supporting academic standards plays a significant role in the franchise rules.
Academics are a critical issue because some young athletes become college students simply to hone their athletic skills within a college sports franchise prior to turning professional at the earliest and most profitable opportunity. This isn’t new, but the current visibility, frequency and overtly commercial nature of these athlete transits through college to the pros with minimal to almost no involvement in academic life made the NCAA worry about the amateur, academic appearance of its franchises, a principal component of their entertainment value.
To eliminate the worst and most offensive of these abuses, the franchisees must now comply with a new academic rule: the APR. This mechanism creates a small incentive for coaches to reduce the number of transitory semi-pro players they recruit and use for a season or two by reducing the number of scholarships offending coaches can offer the next group of recruits. Since scholarships buy athletic talent, this will probably affect a few very badly behaved coaches in some sports and provide much needed academic cover for the entire college sports franchising business.
Who will benefit? Institutions with high academic prestige and significant wealth will continue to recruit first class athletes who also have the ability to survive some form of academic program. They tend to do this now, and will just do it even better. Institutions with low academic prestige and minimal wealth, who now admit almost anyone who applies, will no longer be able to admit and play a few first class athletes who have no interest or preparation for collegiate academic progress, reducing further their ability to compete against the rich and powerful schools.
As always happens when the NCAA improves the quality of the entertainment product it sells through its college franchisees, the rich and powerful get an even greater advantage over the struggling marginal programs. Those in the middle will need to spend more on academic advisers, more on study halls and monitoring, and more on remedial work for underprepared athletes. This will increase the losses they sustain on their intercollegiate athletic programs, but the value of the franchise to their trustees, alumni, legislators and friends will overcome any objections.
We should perhaps celebrate any change in popular culture that appears to support academic success, even if the motives of the NCAA focus more on commercial viability than academic integrity. At the same time, we should always recognize the fundamental conflict that exists between the all-too-human demand for competitive sports excellence that drives the NCAA and the less visible and less intense requirement that our students be students, even when they serve athletics, a concern of faculty and many other observers. Some institutions, more interested in the competition than the student, will likely find ways to evade much of this legislation through soft courses and majors, overly zealous academic advising and similar maneuvers. At the same time, a few of the semi-pro players in high school may decide that they should skip the collegiate experience altogether.
One thing is for sure, the NCAA franchising operation will continue its highly compensated, cautious and commercially successful management of the entertainment quality of the college sports enterprise, and the academics will find a way to adjust.
Two weeks ago, the referee in an ongoing contest between girls and boys made the game much more fair. But the U.S. Department of Education’s new guidelines for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires colleges to offer gender equity in intercollegiate athletics, has met with nothing but jeers from fans of the old rules.
At least on paper, the guidelines for complying with the student participation element of Title IX are pretty clear. Universities need to meet one of three prongs to be in compliance: They must either (1) ensure women are represented in athletics in numbers proportionate to their presence in the student body; (2) demonstrate continued efforts to expand athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex; or (3) show they are fully accommodating women’s athletic interests.
The third prong is at the center of the current debate. How does a school show it is providing intercollegiate athletic opportunity on par with women’s interest?
The answer, one would think, is obvious: You ask them. In practice, though, it has been far from that simple. Guidance from the Department of Education over the years has been unclear, and colleges have faced a constant threat of litigation for falling short of anything less than "proportionality."
With its new guidance, the Department of Education is finally trying to let schools to use the common sense solution, enabling them to comply with Title IX by e-mailing a survey to all students asking them about their interest in participating in intercollegiate athletics, and judging schools by how closely what they offer matches what women want. It makes sense. So what’s the problem?
Like a home crowd whose team just had a touchdown called back, Title IX’s proponents pounced on the department’s new rules. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary last week, for instance, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold-medal swimmer and an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, and Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, ripped into the new guidance, saying the department is “thumbing its nose at the law and the female athletes it is charged with protecting.”
Of course, home crowds are typically biased -- they want their team to win, after all -- so it’s little surprise that Title IX’s fans are raising questionable objections to the new guidance. Among the weakest, but most important, is the assertion that surveys can’t gauge women’s interest in athletics relative to men because, according to Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano, "culturally, men are simply more likely than women to profess interest in a sport ... women are less likely to profess an interest in sports, even if they are interested!"
Apparently, we’re supposed to give activists like Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano the policies they demand because they say women want to play sports at the same rate as men, but just won’t admit it. Were such logic applied on the playing field rather than in the policy world, it would be like awarding a team points for invisible shots they say only they can see go in the goal.
But let’s suppose women really are unwilling to state their true interest in athletics. Let’s believe Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano when they write that “professing interest in a sport does not predict behavior...." If that’s true, we should find that while lower percentages of women than men profess an interest in putting on their cleats, when it actually comes time to play, women are just as likely to lace ‘em up.
It turns out that contrary to what Title IX activists tell us, what women say does indeed translate into what they do. For instance, according to the Higher Education Research Institute’s report "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2004," between 2.7 and 5 percent of men (depending on the type of college in which they were enrolled) participated in no exercise or sports in a typical week of their senior year in high school.
In contrast, between 4.7 and 16.1 percent of women participated in no sports or exercise.On the high end, between 11.6 and 17 percent of men reported having spent more than 20 hours participating in exercise or sports as high schools seniors, while only between 5.5 and 7.6 percent of females spent that much time.
The findings of "The American Freshman" are corroborated in Taking Sex Differences Seriously, by the University of Virginia’s Steven Rhoads. Rhoads reports that despite the fact that anyone who wants to can play on college intramural teams, typically three to four times more men participate than women.
Surprisingly, the “women want to play as much as men, they just won’t say it” argument might not be the weakest objection to surveys. In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, argued that sending e-mail surveys to students, in which a non-response indicates no interest in sports, is unfair because "a lot of those e-mails won’t even be opened."
Apparently, the women who are supposedly dying to play sports aren’t even sufficiently motivated to keep an eye out for an interest survey, or to open it when it comes. What coach would even want players with so little enthusiasm for their sport on their team?
Perhaps the one argument with which Title IX defenders score a legitimate point is that a survey will fail to capture the athletic interest of incoming students. Hogshead-Makar and Lopiano argue, for instance, that colleges need to examine the interests not only of current students, but of prospective students, who are often recruited by schools based on their athletic abilities.
It’s a decent argument, but it’s ultimately a losing proposition for Title IX supporters. Because women’s interest in athletics really isn’t proportionate to that of men, sooner or later women’s athletic slots might be offered, but no one will be there to fill them. It's one of the reasons colleges have been forced to cut men’s sports, rather than increase women’s sports, to achieve proportionality.
Unfortunately, as long as government is involved, college sports will continue to revolve around political, rather than athletic, contests, and only the most politically skilled will win. Until now, that’s been supporters of Title IX, who have succeeded in persuading policymakers to require that colleges accommodate a demand for women’s athletics opportunities that can’t even be shown to exist. It’s a game Title IX supporters have liked because the referee -- the government -- has usually been on their side.
But real fairness requires a neutral referee, which political solutions simply can’t provide. Take the government out of the game, though, and colleges and students -- not politicians -- will decide the winner. In other words, abolish Title IX, and let supply and demand take over the referee job.
Importantly, in such a system women will almost always control the ball. They can choose the schools that offer what they want -- athletic opportunities, artistic outlets, good academics, or anything else -- and can run past those that don’t.
Schools that discriminate will be penalized not by the government, but by prospective students who choose to enroll in competing institutions. It’s a competition that will be stacked against sexist institutions: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 56 percent of college students are women, and their majority status has been growing. Women are a powerful market force.
Unless they really are as incapable of acting on their desires as supporters of the status quo seem to suggest, women will get what they want out of their colleges. But if they continue to cede power to special interests and government, while some women will still win, most everyone else will lose.
Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.
Eighteen colleges are now on the mascot pariah list of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Three are Braves. Six are Indians. Four identify as specific tribes -- Seminoles, Utes, Chippewas, and Choctaws. Carthage College calls itself the Redmen. The University of Illinois has created its own tribe, the Fighting Illini. The last university on the list -- Southeastern Oklahoma State -- doesn't beat around the bush or go for modifiers. Its team name is the Savages.
American Indian leaders and activists have objected to their tribes' use as sports mascots since the 1970s, but the public has shrugged its shoulders and gone on cheering for its favorite Indians and Redskins, a term one linguist compared to Darkies. It is hard to have a serious public discussion about sports mascots because most of us don't know enough history to put the debate into historical context. Native Americans know this history. These are their family stories.
American Indian sports mascots exist under a double bubble of mythological padding. One layer is the mythology that surrounds, in this case, college sports and the "student athlete." The other consists of the deeply planted myths we have absorbed about American Indians. Under all this mythological wrapping, our thinking tends to get fuzzy. Fake Indians don't seem problematic because they are so very normal, just part of our "cultural wallpaper," in the words of Jay Rosenstein, who made the documentary film In Whose Honor?
The mascot debate is actually the latest in a long series of battles over who controls American Indian culture. Since most of us never learned the history of white/Native relations in our country, the issue seems to have sprung out of nowhere. Until I wrote a book about sports mascots, I never knew the history of forced assimilation. But culture was as much a battleground as land. The U.S. government conducted a strenuous campaign to wipe out American Indian cultures, religions, and languages. American Indian children were forcibly taken from their families to boarding schools where they were physically punished if they spoke their tribal languages or tried to maintain their religious observances. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, the First Americans had none until 1934. Before this, Native people faced sanctions even when trying to conduct ceremonies and dances on their own reservations. One of the few historical incidents many of us do know about, the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee, took place because American Indians were gathering to dance at a religious ceremony that the government was determined to suppress.
At the same time that we were trying to destroy American Indian cultures, non-Native Americans loved to dress up and play Indian. What could be more American -- we've been doing it since the Boston Tea Party. Mascot performances like Chief Illiniwek, a fictional chief who dances at Illinois on the 50-yard line at halftime or Osceola, who gallops in at Florida State University games carrying a burning lance, trace their origins to the Wild West show, traveling big-tent performances that were part of the American circus tradition. This is why mascot performers and Indian profile logos almost always feature feathered headdresses, no matter what tribe they represent. The feathered headdresses are typical of Wild West performers, who were recruited from the Sioux Nation. Buffalo Bill, the best-known Wild West ringmaster claimed, just like modern universities, that his show was both historically accurate and morally uplifting.
Buffalo Bill's signature acts -- the Indian attack on the settler cabin, on the circled wagons, and on the stagecoach -- survived after the circus era as film and television clichés. Wild West shows were filmed and evolved into Westerns. When Americans flocked to Wild West shows, they believed they were seeing the last vestiges of a dying culture. It was true that Native populations were declining. But this idea, that American Indians would disappear like dinosaurs, became so embedded in American mythology that even today many non-Native Americans are startled to encounter a flesh and blood Native person. Boy Scouts were told it was their patriotic duty to learn Indian songs and dances lest they be lost forever. Thrilled by the Wild West performances, college boys and Boy Scouts emulated the showbiz Indians when they created Indian sports mascots, many of which date from the 1920s.
The college boys and Boy Scouts, despite their good intentions, were working under an enormous misperception. Native American people survived. Their populations rebounded. Having paid dearly to save what is left of their cultures, religions and languages, they want to control how they are used and passed on. Understandably, they resent how lightly colleges appropriate their cultures for entertainment at sports events and it is particularly hurtful that this happens in higher education. The United States Commission on Civil Rights pointed this out in April 2001 when it urged non-Native colleges to retire American Indian imagery and names in sports.
Public symbols that use other minority groups have mostly disappeared. They make us all uncomfortable. Can you imagine the Washington Darkies or the Florida State Chicanos? At Sonoma State University, when Jewish groups objected to the Cossacks nickname, they became the Seawolves within two years. If students were to stage minstrel shows, as they did in the 30s, the students would be justifiably criticized. But when America discusses race, the terms are usually black and white. Native Americans say they feel invisible.
The strong attachment students feel for their mascots or nicknames is not instinctual; it is promoted. Students are indoctrinated into a campus cult of racial stereotyping. Critical thinking on the subject of the mascot must be discouraged and the school has to promote an anti-educational, anti-intellectual reaction. This is even more disturbing because it takes place in a setting of talk about "honoring" Indians. But Indian mascots are fantasy figures, firmly stuck in the past.
One parallel symbol is Aunt Jemima, the slave cook who loved the plantation so much she didn't want to leave when she was freed. She is a white fantasy that denies and betrays the real history of slavery, just like the mascot Osceola. The real Osceola fought against American expansion into Seminole land and was betrayed when he came in good faith to a peace council with American soldiers. But his mascot reincarnation is happy to welcome Florida State fans.
Knowing this history, Native people find it hard to explain to us why mascots are so offensive. We can't hold up our end of the argument. It's like the modern teenager who looks at the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle, sees a positive depiction of a smiling African-American grandmother, and says, "What's the problem? It's so positive."
The problem isn't this particular logo, but the long pattern of denying the history of slavery that the original Aunt Jemima, with the ads depicting her life history, represents. In addition to slavery, there is another reality we have swept under our historical carpet: how we acquired this land we love so much. When you sweep something that large under the rug, you get bumps. Mascots are bumps in our historical carpet, something we are trying to rearrange and deny to make it more appealing. In our version of the story, American Indians just disappeared and our mascots commemorate them with respect and honor.
But American Indians are not gone and they don't want to be commemorated with a halftime Wild West show by fans that know nothing of their culture. Universities' and fans' proprietary insistence -- this is ours and we'll keep it no matter what you say -- is offensive. When the two sides clash on campuses, the racial hostility gets ugly.
The mascot/nickname/logo issue is about how the majority depicts the minority, so if you go to a reservation and interview people randomly, they may say it's not a concern for them. But listening to Native people who have spent time on the campus at Illinois or at the University of North Dakota, I usually hear strong feelings of frustration and bitterness. In those places, everything Native exists in relation to the mascot or nickname. And because American Indians nearly always oppose the mascot, the hardline students who support the mascot become anti-Indian.
Although the mascots are not intended to be hostile or abusive, the campus climate around them certainly can be, especially for Native students. Native leaders and educators, including the American Congress of American Indians, list mascots and anti-defamation as one of the important issues facing Native people. Native people want to be in our institutions of higher education, not as mascots and sports souvenirs, but as equals and contemporaries -- as students, faculty and staff. They want their history taught truthfully in the classroom, not presented in a false pageant of white longing.
It is not easy to retire a nickname or mascot. The attachment of fans, their identity as Seminoles or Indians, runs deep. Generations of alumni come out of the woodwork, write letters, threaten to withhold money, bring lawsuits. Education is usually a popular enterprise and educators are taken aback at this kind of controversy. The NCAA has given these schools a perfect opportunity to say, "had to do it, couldn't hobble the sports program." I congratulate the NCAA for declaring that American Indians are not an exception to the non-discrimination policies of higher education and college sports that benefit other minority groups. Name and mascot changes can go very smoothly when the campus leadership is united and when they hold to their resolve that a new sports identity is best for the institution. The NCAA policy will have a ripple effect on high schools, another positive result.
Southeast Missouri State avoided the pariah list by changing its nickname this year. In October I spoke at the ceremony when the Southeast Missouri State Indians were retired, to the sounds of Mohican musician Bill Miller's haunting flute music. Everyone in attendance was positive about the future. Everyone was ready to cheer for the SEMO Redhawks. There's a lot of talk in college sports about respect. I felt it that day.
After a constant conversation about college sports since early in the 20th century, the peculiar logic of hardcore fans and impassioned critics passes from the curious to the bizarre. We love sports because they teach teamwork and the value of struggle against adversity. We hate sports because they corrupt the pure ideals of academic life. We love sports because they bring glory and visibility to our college's name. We hate sports because their visibility celebrates the false value of winning at any cost.
These counterpoint rituals of praise and condemnation swirl around the games themselves and seem to thrive on the controversy, ignore the details, and repeat themselves with minor variations every year. While sports people speak of the positive rituals, they do so with the voices of tired preachers, offering an overused sermon one Sunday too often. The critics, as they grow ever more strident with their complaint, speak with the desperation of voices crying in the wilderness.
The ineffectiveness of the sports-in-college debate comes from confusion about the issues. The controversy assumes there is a fundamental open question about the place of intercollegiate sports in America’s colleges and universities. There is not. Intercollegiate sports are a required activity for mainstream colleges and universities in America. Sports programs form part of their core program and this has been so since the first decade of the 20th century as evidenced by the chronology of the big stadiums of the first 20 years. Harvard's Soldiers Field with its capacity of 57,000 in the 1920s and the Yale Bowl with its 80,000 attendance at the Yale-Army game of 1923 set a standard for elite commitment to football (" The Sports Imperative in America’s Research Universities"). Rants against the inclusion of competitive intercollegiate sports in university life, whatever their intellectual or moral worth, define the concept of irrelevant.
Similarly, high-minded concern about the culture of winning misses the point. The purpose of organized sport is to determine a winner. This is why we keep score. Once we recognize the inevitability of intercollegiate sports competition, we have also accepted the culture of winning. A well-intentioned effort to produce sports without winning borders on the absurd and defines the meaning of futile.
Still, something in college sports is understandable and manageable: the money. The issue of how much the sports program costs requires an accounting of revenue and expenses, a deceptively simple thing in theory. In the college sports world, it is often possible to get reasonably accurate data on income (because it is in the interest of the institution to demonstrate high levels of sports revenue). It is usually impossible, though, to get reasonably accurate approximations of the expenses (because it is rarely in the interest of the institution to report high expenses accurately). A table of what universities often fail to include when they report their income and expenses from college athletic programs appears in a discussion of aspects of this subject in The Sports Imperative mentioned above.
Institutions subsidize college sports programs by charging a wide range of athletics expenses to the general operating budget of the university, whether for debt, grounds, security, legal work, administrative staff, fringe benefits, insurance, or many other expenses large and small. When the campus subtracts the partial expenses from the full income, they can report a profitable or at least modestly in deficit program. This looks much better to the observing public than what a true accounting of costs might provide. Convenience accounting would be the right term for these practices.
Still, even if the published information minimizes the cost of the athletic program to the institution, administrators and their trustees (well at least the administrators) need to know the true cost so that they can manage the consequences of subsidizing athletics and recognize when the subsidy grows too large for the good of the college.
How can we weigh the significance of a subsidy to college sports? At a major land-grant flagship institution with a budget of $1.5 billion, a subsidy to the athletics department of $2 million may be a small matter, but to a small liberal arts college with a budget of $500 million, it may make a bigger difference. We can get a better perspective if we look at the opportunity cost of such deficits.
If we raise a $45 million athletic endowment we could generate a continuing subsidy (at a payout rate of 4.5 percent) of $2 million per year for athletics, and we would drive the opportunity cost close to zero because athletics donors, for the most part, do not give substantially to academics and the program would be self-supporting. However, if we cannot raise the $45 million from athletics donors, and we must use general revenue from the university’s budget to pay the $2 million deficit, the opportunity cost is high. Under such circumstances, we would have to take $2 million from teaching and research every year and devote it to intercollegiate athletics, a common practice that drives true academics to near incoherent rage and frustration.
Imagine, however, institutions in the bottom 75 percent of the Division I-A football revenue system or, worse, institutions with Division I-AA football programs, the deficit (calculated correctly and unpublished) can reach into the range of $8 million or $10 million. At $8 million, the endowment required to sustain such a deficit reaches about $178 million. This is well outside the athletic fund raising capacity of almost every academic institution in this group, especially for those in the public sector. The $8 million deficit every year has to come from the students, general revenue, and other sources that could just as easily buy books for the library, scholarships for the students, or faculty for the classroom. There lies the true opportunity cost.
The critics, sometimes easily misled, often aim at the wrong target. It is not the absolute size of the athletic program’s budget that should provoke outraged academic concern but the relative size of the subsidy. A subsidy that requires an investment equivalent to $178 million of endowment is a challenge even for an institution with a respectable $500 million endowment. For an institution with less private resources, it is simply a major annual drain on the academic budget.
At the same time, even if a mega program gets and spends $70 million on intercollegiate athletics, if its full accurate accounts show a balance or even a surplus, then the program is not too big and probably does not hurt the institution. A smaller program, one that takes in $20 million and spends $28 million, may not appear so offensively large, but the $8 million loss may be doing much greater damage to the institution’s academic prospects.
Money always matters, but we need to count all the money, know where it came from, and recognize what we purchased. Otherwise, we waste our time on immaterial, if amusing, debates about the role of intercollegiate sports in America.