The Old College Try

I once heard someone say, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” This person had clearly never been around a preschooler, because they like to ask questions just to watch you scramble to answer them.

If you’ve ever caught yourself in the middle of asking a stupid question you’ve realized that the questions we typically categorize as stupid are categorized as stupid because the answer is obvious to a majority of people.

I’d like to point out that there is also another type of stupid question and that’s the question that has nothing to do with the subject at hand.  In any given group of people there are some that fail to make the transition from an old topic to a new topic.  They get caught up thinking about an idea that the group has moved on from and the next time they speak, they prove it by asking a question or sharing a tidbit that has nothing to do with the current conversation.

This easily distracted person often finds themselves wandering down hypothetical pathways towards solutions to problems that don’t, or shouldn’t exist.  Their questions typically take the group off topic and leave it mired in minutiae.  Their assumption about what the group is talking about, leads to statements and questions that derail forward progress.

In the wake of the most recent NCAA Football scandal, opinion makers and broadcasters have been asking stupid questions like, “How do you keep players and coaches from breaking the rules?”, “How can we limit an agent’s access to players”, and “Shouldn’t we just start paying the players already?”

Bad questions often come from fundamentally bad assumptions.  Those assumptions are the rabbit trails that keep people from actually addressing the real problems facing people.  Assuming that colleges should be profiting from the entertainment value found on the athletic field comes from the assumption that schools should be responsible for organizing sports teams and sponsoring contests in the first place.

The question we should all be asking is actually, “Do athletics play any meaningful role in the process of higher education?” To raise the stakes, ask yourself what football has to do with a doctorate in mathematics?

For the person uninterested in the entertainment value of college football, the idea of an athletic competition serving any useful educational purpose is actually quite absurd.  Colleges didn’t begin by building gaint stadiums and gymnasiums, they began by building classrooms and libraries.  As students moved onto campus to pursue an education, extracurricular activities were organized and planned by the students, during their free time.

Challenging another college to a competition during free time moved from being a “social activity” to a “learning activity” as schools recognized the opportunity to teach character and discipline through athletics.  In an attempt to “educate the whole man” collegiate athletics became a proving ground for teamwork and cooperation.

Then came television.

Broadcasting college sporting events meant that the school could make money to finance the institution in ways that tuition could never touch.  Selling the rights to your school’s football games meant money and free advertising… in the name of education.  With money came the scholarships to lure players from their hometown to yours.  Great teams meant great ratings, and great ratings meant more money.

With all of that money floating around the only way to maintain the players amateur status was to make sure that they didn’t get any of it, a convenience for the people profiting from intercollegiate athletics.  If anyone complains you merely point out that the players are recieving a free education.

Then the NFL took off.

When the opportunity to play sports professionally appeared, scholarships lost their their market value faster than a day old H3.  Going to college meant playing football on TV and playing football on TV meant making a name for yourself come draft day.  That’s when college football became minor league football, and the idea that an athlete was also a scholar disappeared.

In the American college football system, the “scholar-athlete” has actually become the “Athlete-Entertainer-Advertiser” who gets the opportunity to make a name for himself, and the school, while taking classes part time… for free.  Lost in this scenario is the educational reason American colleges undertook the process of organizing their athletic departments, the character development of the student.

When you are surrounded by the money you generate, but unable to touch any of it, it takes a tremendous amount of character to keep playing by the rules you agreed to.  It becomes especially difficult when supporters of the college’s athletic programs make it clear to you that you can have whatever you want… if you keep the program on top.

What began as an effort to develop, produce, and then reward the good character of students has become a carnival of sins that entices boys with the lure of pleasure and glory while, more often than not, boxing them up like mules and shipping them off to the salt mines like a scene from Pinnoccio.

If there were 15 Universities of Florida, 10 universities of Texas, and 7 Universities of Southern California, every other college football program would stink because those are the states that kids who play football come from.  Getting kids from those states to come play football in yours by offering them a “scholarship” doesn’t happen because we want to see them become better men, it happens because we want to stop losing to Texas, California, and Florida.

When a school believes that its primary responsibility is education, they put what money they have into hiring the staff it takes to develop character.  This is why certain schools win games and certain schools don’t.  You can’t seriously believe that it has something to do with the glory of amateurism, or the pride of a state?

“So what can be done?”

It starts by being honest about how little educational value is left in Division I football.  When we can do that, we can start considering what role the coach plays on campus.  Is he just a play caller, or a scheme adjuster?  Was he hired to produce wins and cash?  If so then let’s stop reaming him for doing what he was hired to do.  If entertainment is what we ordered, then we can’t get angry when it gets served.

If however, a coach believes that it’s his job to develop the character of young men, as opposed to win games and make money for the school, then he becomes a whistle blower.  He clicks send on the email that indicts his players, not because he’s protecting his job, but because he’s applying the responsibility and discipline that it takes to make men, not win games.

Is it possible that we’ve become so distracted by the entertainment value of a financial juggernaught that the conversation has changed  more times than we want to admit?  Because if we don’t check back in we’ll keep asking these stupid questions… to the embarrassment of us all.


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