Monday, December 29, 2003

Amateur Athletics

It seems that professional sports might have a negative effect on secondary education in America. Hmmmmm! Is that an understatement?

College sports are a big business. Well, college football and college basketball are big businesses. These two sports generate huge amounts of money for their school's athletic programs. Is it a coincidence that neither of these two sports' professional leagues, NFL and NBA respectively, invest any of their own profits in farm systems? Are these two leagues using our universities as farm systems?

There are many industries that use colleges as their training grounds: medicine, law, communications, entertainment, education, etc. All of these industries use college students to help make their industries tick. These students are called interns and they are paid nominal (well, sometimes generous) salaries to learn their craft and ply the wares of their prospective full-time employers while still in school. None of these industries, however, seem to use, abuse, discard, and never really employ these interns to the same degree as the NHL and the NBA.

Sure, a theater arts major might never become a Broadway star; but, the school does not dismiss them without a degree, irrespective of their scholarship and financial aid status. Why are they not dismissed? Because they have potential in their fields, and though they might not be the next big thing in their fields, they are allowed to continue to hone their craft and acquire a degree in theater arts, studying theater arts, and learning skills relative to their chosen career track. This is not true for a student of athletics. They have no similar college of sports in which to learn and acquire a degree.

I think a theater arts degree is an important degree. I think the study of theater and drama is important to civilization. I do not compare it, though, to a medical degree. That is an unfair comparison. An actor or lighting designer or playwright need not know about the circulatory system or the history of philosophy in order to be a good theater arts degree candidate (even at the doctoral level). We, as a society, would never pretend that the next Tennessee Williams should be required to learn about the nuances of tort law. Why do we pretend the next Michael Jordan should learn these things?

A theater arts major will also spend some months of each year earning money in the theater world, either as an intern or at a summer job. This is expected of the student. And if the student is from a family of modest or impoverished means, that theater arts major would be required to earn some money for survival. Every adult student should keep themselves in clothes, toiletries, Kraft macaroni & cheese, Ramen noodles, a few beers, and some condoms. So, you do what you must do: you work. Hopefully, you find work in your chosen career. We do not allow student athletes to do this. They are supposed to magically support themselves without using their God-given skills to acquire money.

Some universities actually have colleges of theater arts. Entire schools dedicated to this discipline; and there are staff employed to help them find work and ways to earn money while learning and plying their trade. This is how it should be. This is sensible. Anyone in an athletic program found to be financially aiding an athlete is dismissed from the school and disgraced in the media.

A college football or basketball player is given a scholarship to attend school for the sole purpose of playing sports and helping the amateur athletics industry generate profits. We pretend that this student, gifted in many ways, will somehow find time during training, travel, games, team meetings, fitness training, medical examinations, and attendance at school fundraising events, to obtain a degree in some field completely removed from both the reason they have been brought to the school and that in which they are interested.

We can argue that in the old days it was students who played athletics, and they were only in the school to acquire an education. That is very sweet. It's a lovely memory. It's a little slice of sentimentality that has no bearing on the reality of today's college sports. That was the old days.

Sure you have the occasional Notre Dame where student athletes ARE students first and athletes second. Notre Dame does an excellent job finding those miraculous people every year. The other thousands of schools are looking for athletes they can call students, so they can field a team worthy of television broadcast. Why? Because the revenue generated at the ESPN Nestle RIAA Super Duper Bowl Of The Year will pay the school millions of dollars for their performance!

So, we ask these athletes to come to our schools and raise these remarkable sums of money while working forty, fifty, sixty hours a week for the team; and we pretend we are giving them an education. We almost never give them a degree, of course, and we barely teach them anything, so they are dumped back into the job market (which barely exists in America) and we scream about the horrible graduation-rate of college football and basketball players.

All the while, the NBA and the NFL are using our schools to recruit their future superstars. They are paying our schools to provide them with the talent. This is the same thing the law firms, hospitals, studios, and accounting firms ask of our schools. The difference is that the sports leagues pay the money to the school and the other private industries actually pay the student! Why are we not paying student athletes the same way we are paying other students who work and prepare for industry?

I think each University that wants to participate in Division One Profit Making Televised Events should be required to establish a College of Sports that offers some sort of sports degree. I am serious. Here we have a group of barely literate Americans who bring huge sums of money into a school, are deserted by our nation's failed public education system, and want to work hard and earn a lot of money. Why not use their skills AND teach them how to be successful citizens?

The curricula could include life-skills subjects that we all need, but do not all know. How To Read. How To Count. How To Use A Phone Book. How To Get A Passport. How To Balance A Checking Account. How To Register To Vote. Charity: How It Works. Filling-Out A Job Application. Real Life Economics. I know it sounds flippant, but I think we owe it to these athletes to make sure they really can make it in the world the day after they are dumped from the squad and their scholarship is cancelled.

Stepping back, however, we can see that this is really not an answer to the problem. The problem is that the NFL and NBA are recklessly using our institutions of higher learning as the minor leagues and farm systems that other sports pay for out-of-pocket.

Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League do not present as much of a threat to their young athletes. These sports recruit and train and guide and groom young athletes. They do not abuse our educational system.

If we prevented professional sports from using our colleges as proving grounds, we would have better educational institutions, better professional sports, better opportunity for athletes, and a better society because of it.

Theater majors, baby lawyers, medical interns, and all the rest are paid money while in college studying what they do best. We should afford American athletes the same privilege and opportunity; and we should remove their futures from the clutches of greedy athletic directors who would be better off hired to run professional development camps outside of our education industry. Let the NFL and NBA invest in farm systems and hire these horrible athletic directors to run them.

An athletic director is no more an educator than a basketball player is a student. Let’s stop pretending! Either develop colleges of athletics, or dump the sports that are using our schools as their minor leagues.