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The Oregon Trial
August 22, 2007 - 3:17pm



The University of Oregon, a once-proud school, is proceeding briskly toward the status of Oklahoma State, a third-tier football factory run by a sports-mad billionaire alumnus. In the case of Oklahoma, it's T. Boone Pickens of oil; for Oregon, it's Phil Knight of shoes.

Unlike OSU, however, Oregon's professors are putting up a fight. Their belligerence has annoyed boosters, who've fought back with ... well, you know the drill... denunciations of pointy heads, egg heads, and bald heads who care whether students graduate... Whether they learn anything...

One booster, Mike deCourcy, asks "why athletes aren't treated more like students in similar disciplines... [S]tudents who major in theater, dance, and music are presented academic credits and degrees in those subjects, whereas athletes [who] do similar work in their sports are said to be performing strictly extracurricular activities....[C]oaches who work for colleges study their sport and innovate within their sport with as much rigor as any ballet teacher or voice instructor. [Nay-saying professors] dismissively call basketball or football "a game," as if it's no more sophisticated than Parchesi [ sic]."

deCourcy's complaint allows UD to clarify the distinction between subjects of thought and objects of entertainment.

Let's start with deCourcy's own distinction. He differentiates between sport and game, with sport designating a sophisticated academic discipline, and game having to do with unsophisticated pleasurable time-passing, as in Parcheesi. A football event on the gridiron or a basketball event on the court may be a singular game, but football or basketball writ large is a field of study with its own history, innovations, and skills. It is equivalent to the study of voice or ballet.

It is, in other words, an art (deCourcy does not use examples from physics or biology), a performative art, a branch of aesthetics. Football concentrators at universities are engaged in rigorous study toward the perfecting of their art, and should be judged and rewarded in the same way that music and dance students are judged and rewarded. Coaches are performance professors who study the history of their sport and make intellectual and creative contributions to it.

Certainly sport, as a subset of human play generally, is a subject worthy of academic interest. Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga is a scholarly classic on the subject of our drive toward play, and many educated people have it on their bookshelves. UD can imagine a serious college major the subject of whose final thesis - within, say, anthropology - would be forms and meanings of play throughout history and among cultures.

But I think it's precisely within that word "meanings" that deCourcy's attempt to incorporate football into artistic performance majors runs into trouble. Drama, oratorio, dance -- these all express something. They have culturally significant meanings. The actor, singer, and dancer convey these meanings through their interpretations of texts. The football player, on the other hand, is carrying out a coach's plan in order to win a game. His audience may find his 400-pound bulk slamming up against another 400-pound bulk on its way to kill a quarterback beautiful, but this aesthetic charge is incidental to the intent of the activity, which is to do whatever possible to make a touchdown.

The meaning of football activity is that games are good to win. Football audiences may take a win to mean all sorts of things - that their school is really great, truly superior; that their fellow students on the field (no, they never see them in class... never, come to think of it, see them on campus... but they're sure the players share their own sense of deep pride in and identity with their school... after all, their jerseys have the name of the school on them...) are really talented sportsmen, that their state is the best state in the union, that they themselves are absolutely terrific people because of their association with these winners - but the win doesn't mean these things. It doesn't mean anything. Or it doesn't mean anything that serious people would find interesting and worth thinking about, much less constructing an academic discipline around.

UD happily acknowledges that millions of people need the excitement and gratification of NASCAR and the Bowl Championship Series. She acknowledges that McDonald's has sold billions of burgers. We are not yet, with these numbers, at an academic discipline.


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