Lots of hand-wringing in the ivory towers this year over big-time college sports; the chancellor of the University of Maryland system recently said, “We’ve reached a point where big-time intercollegiate athletics is undermining the integrity of our institutions, diverting presidents and institutions from their main purpose.” Some of the dark muttering springs from the scandal at Penn State, which I think is a bit silly. People at Penn State acted wrongly, but they have been fired for it and face prosecution; what major institution in our world doesn't have a problem with sexual abuse?
I used to be one of those snobs who called for the abolition of big-time sports, but I have changed my mind. Certainly the big, competitive programs carry with them the risk of corruption; but that is a reason to be vigilant against corruption, not give up the whole enterprise. Yes, on some campuses athletics comes to overshadow academics for many students; but how many of those students would be more passionate about Economics and English if football was removed?
My college life was dominated by learning, which I pursued with a passion, along with Dungeons & Dragons, making friends, and chasing women. I played soccer for a while, but otherwise I paid no attention to sports, watched no television, and never listened to the radio. And I was in heaven. But in the end, what did it matter to the world? It turns out that our society has an oversupply of would-be professors and writers. I love the esoteric learning I acquired, and I am deeply grateful to the schools I attended for teaching it to me. But I am not sure that it either made me a better person or made America a better place.
College for most Americans is a place to do four years of growing up in an enriched environment, to learn something about the world, to make friends, to prepare for the world of work, and to have fun. It is foolish to think that the average student will subsume him or herself in learning in the way that I and my friends did. A small, elite college may be able to create an atmosphere of separation from commercial values and mass culture, but that is not going to happen at a big university. For most students, involvement in college sports is crowding out, not learning, but television, web surfing, partying, and other sorts of amusement.
It is through sports, more than any other way, that big universities create a sense of community. Since I think the lack of community is one of the great curses of modern life are, I can't really see this as a bad thing. Universities promote sports because they create a sense of belonging to something among both students and alumni that opens their hearts and wallets toward the school. It is only in some professors' dream worlds that philosophy and biology can do that. Sports also gives modern people the ecstatic experiences that philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance call "whooshing up," and that they and I think are essential to a full human life.
Whatever might be said against college football and basketball, they make millions of people happy for a few hours every week. They give people a piece of identity they can use in assembling themselves; they bring excitement to humdrum lives; they strengthen the university community. They are important to us, and so they will survive, whatever professors and moralists think.