Football Slouches Towarda Former Women's College

January 7, 2005

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 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.

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