The Faculty Bench
Margaret Soltan explains why professors ignore the outrages of big-time college athletics and why they need to start paying attention.
This season's crop of college sports scandals is already so rancid that just about everyone is riveted to the foulness of it. Rent-A-Stripper night at Duke University is a whiff in the wake of the fumes pouring out of Auburn University (professors creating pretend courses for athletes), the University of Georgia (the canceling of classes for football games, trustee cronyism and malfeasance, NCAA violations, rampant fan alcoholism), Ohio University ( 17 football players arrested in the last 10 months, and their coach recently convicted of drunk driving), the University of Miami ( multiple on-field riots by players), and the other big stinkers.
Those who follow this stuff closely, like the Drake Group, know that almost every major sports program in this country's universities is stewing in some mix of bogus coursework, endemic plagiarism, diploma mill admits, risible graduation rates, and team thuggery -- and that's just the players. Add two-million-dollar-a-year drunk coaches crashing their cars all over town; meddling and corrupt alumni boosters subsidizing luxury boxes in new stadiums with massively overpriced tickets and names honoring the local bank; trustees averting their eyes as students tailgate their way to the emergency room; and presidents disciplining on-field rioters by ever so lightly spanking their bottoms, and you get a problem difficult to ignore.
Or so you'd think. But tenured faculty -- the one group doomed to wander the Boschean triptych of Athlete-Alumni-Administration forever and ever -- seems to have noticed nothing. Duke's faculty organized itself to protest the lurid thing its lacrosse team had become, yes, but where are Miami's and Georgia's professors, where things are much, much worse? It's like that scene in Naked Gun when, with buildings exploding into flames behind him, Leslie Nielson tells the gathering crowd, "Nothing to see here! Nothing to see here!" Or that W.H. Auden poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," where atrocities rage in the background while in the foreground "the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."
The psych professor pontificates to his class about Freudian denial, ignoring the fact that outside his window a group of recruits to the women's soccer team, hazed to within an inch of their lives, has just vomited in loud and anguished unison and then passed out. The sociology professor deplores the country's weak gun laws while half a block away, in student housing, pistol play breaks out on the basketball team. The political science professor decries corporate graft, his voice drowned out by a quarterback revving the Hummer he got as a token of a dealership's esteem. The literature professor recites Keats's "To Autumn" to herself as she trods the leafy paths of the quad, unaware that underfoot she's crunching not leaves but beer cans left over from the football game the school has always called The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
It's not that the faculty bench has cleared; the faculty bench was always empty. Even as public revulsion grows at the sight of grosser and grosser campuses, the professors stay silent. Why?
Some professors, to start with, are themselves team boosters. They're excited by the spectacle of game day, its bracing autumn weather, everyone wrapped in team-color scarves, the TV cameras trained on their guys, the shrieking advertising images on the stadium's "Godzillatron" screen, generations of university grads gathered in the stands to scream so loudly the other side can't hear its signals. These are the faculty members who find ways to rack up course credits for athletes who don't attend classes. As teen nerds, these professors worshipped jocks and wished to serve them. Now they're serving them.
And some professors are dupes. They actually think the sports program contributes significant money to the academic side of their university. In almost every case, they are wrong, and they could discover they're wrong. Yet they remain in a sort of bad-faith fog about it. They don't really quite exactly precisely know where all that money from tickets and TV and endorsements goes, but, hell, some of it's gotta get to the library, right? A close look at the books (admittedly, sports program managers make such looks difficult) would probably reveal that sports at the dupe's university drains money from the primary mission of the place. To say nothing of the reputational damage that's being done to the institution by scandal after scandal.
Next, there are the truly oblivious. A lot of professors are eerily good at ignoring everything in the world. They've written 14 books with obnoxious children and harridan wives bedeviling them every step of the way. To call them "absent-minded" would be an insult. They are not there. The sports program has yet to be devised which is corrupt and homocidal enough to catch their eye.
Number four would be embarrassed. Professors have shaky egos and are, as a group, preoccupied with academic status. Already, if you're at one of the big sports schools, you're unlikely to be at an academic powerhouse; but you still think of yourself as a serious person, and you very much want to think of your university as a serious one. It's humiliating to your sense of yourself and your institution to have to confront the overriding importance for almost everyone on campus of sports in general and the bad boy football and basketball teams in particular. Understandably, you will find ways to avoid this confrontation.
Now to class issues. Professors may be intellectual and social snobs, the sort of people who look down on yoyos whose face paint runs with Budweiser. Being excitable about anything strikes a lot of professors, whose approach to life tends to be tight-lipped irony, as tacky. And don't forget ideology. It's the rare women's studies prof ready to squeal along with the pompom squad. The chair of peace studies will have quite a struggle with the naked aggression on the gridiron. The contempt all of these professors express is at least an emotion and not indifference. Yet the contempt is frozen. It conveys the belief that the situation's too big and too crazy to do anything about.
There's also, finally, the corporate outdoorishness of the venture. Professors have nothing against getting quietly tight in their own snug lodgings, but the idea of braving the cold and getting soppy with a bunch of fellow drunks is revolting. In general, professors are not team players -- groups of any kind give them the heebie jeebies.
Given what looks like a pretty hardwired incompatibility between professors and sports programs, can we even begin to imagine a time when professors might take a bit of interest in the athletic scandals on their campuses? Myles Brand, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, recently extended an invitation to professors to become "fully engaged" in significant aspects of their universities' programs.
Individual faculty resistance can sometimes have an impact. Here are two examples, both from 2004's scandal-plagued darling, the University of Colorado at Boulder:
1.) Professor Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, left Colorado in disgust, citing -- among other concerns -- the irreparable academic damage its sports program had done and continued to do.
2.) Professor Joyce Lebra, a distinguished historian, refused a University Medal, one of the highest awards the university offers, writing in her rejection letter that she would never take a prize from a place whose "gross distortion of priorities" has made it an "embarrassment." "The focus and priority on football," she concluded, "has undermined the atmosphere of this university, which by definition should be dedicated to academic endeavor at the highest level."
Both Wieman and Lebra got national coverage, and probably caused a modicum of shame among the trustees and administrators at Colorado. I don't claim such gestures make a big difference, but they certainly get people's attention. Group protest, of the sort Duke's faculty expressed, is more effective, but more difficult to accomplish. Remember, professors don't like to do groups.
Direct action has its attractions -- showing up at trustee meetings and holding signs and insisting on being heard -- but keep in mind a story the other day out of Western Kentucky University, one of many provincial institutions that convince themselves to become Division I-A football universities, because it'll really put them on the map:
From The Courier-Journal: "Western Kentucky University's board ran roughshod over faculty regent Robert Dietel last week, as it rushed to embrace Division I-A football.... WKU's board told Dietel to shut up. Contempt dripped from [one board member]: 'People on this board dedicate their time for free. They have better things to do than let some university professor just keep talking.'"
That idiot is what professors who get serious about their universities' purulent sports programs are up against. Professors on some level understand this, and shy away.
But whether through principled exits, repudiation of academic awards, organized petitions and demonstrations, involvement in groups like Drake, or simply unrelenting ridicule, more professors should act upon the disgust that the stench from sports factories inspires in people who have not forgotten what universities are.
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