Real reform? Treat athletic pursuits as legitimate

Sep. 11, 2013 @ 09:35 AM

I have always rooted for the hometown newspaper and have been delighted with the direction recently on the opinion pages providing some really good writing and unusual balance, a lot of which has been locally produced.

But every couple of years someone writes an editorial whine about college athletics that makes me wonder weather a jock in college stole his girlfriend or laughed at him in the gym.

I don’t know why these annoy me so much. I got through school on a football grant-in-aid at a football powerhouse but I’m not a rabid fan and haven’t attended a game at my alma mater in 20 years. At best you could describe my interest in collegiate athletics as casual. My time as a jock was mostly a grind. In four years including a national championship year I never played a minute, but I learned more about managing an organization, leadership, teamwork and discipline than any classroom could ever convey.

For anyone that gets worked up about the influence of big time athletics in our universities consider these things:

The numbers. If there are 100 or so athletes involved at any one time in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball, even in a relatively small school like Duke that represents less than 2 percent of the student body and way less than that in the big public universities. If the gigantic guy in sweatpants who sleeps at the back of the hall during the fascinating lectures on the Peloponnesian War and still gets a C is a threat to the academic standards of an institution, there wasn’t much to start with. Besides, there’s a good chance there is a “legacy” admission sitting near him with eyes glued to a smart phone who cares even less about the ancient Greeks but will also get a gentleman’s C.

The money. Again it’s a relative thing. The money flowing into and out of a major athletic program is a fraction of what flows into and out of a major research university.

Amateurism. The Olympics long ago gave up the elitist notion of pure amateurism. Why it has stuck around university athletics can only be explained by the exploitive nature of the relationship between a school and its athletes. How can we simultaneously complain about the big bucks in college athletics and condemn Greg Little for taking $20K from a potential agent investing in their future together? It’s a pittance and doesn’t come out of the university’s revenue stream.

As I recall Little’s story, he wasn’t from a family of physicians on Long Island or hedge fund managers in Manhattan who could afford to send him off to university for four years to find himself. Is anyone concerned that a computer scientist does a lucrative internship at Google or writes mobile apps in her spare time? Or how about an English major who performs in a play at a dinner theater hustling drinks for tips between acts or even a dance major who strips at the local gentleman’s club? Let’s drop the hypocrisy.

Right and Wrong. The Herald-Sun’s last editorial on the subject alluding to Greg Little’s story protests that the athletes should know the difference between right and wrong. Let’s not confuse right and wrong with ridiculous and arbitrary rules created by an unelected set of self-important people. The fact that Johnny Mansell draws a suspension and national attention for selling a few autographs for pocket change is ridiculous. Hmmm…feed my family or honor these stupid rules?

Right and wrong…let’s think about that. This is not to defend the thugs, thieves, molesters and rapists who might find their way onto an athletic team. Athletes have no corner on debauchery nor are all athletes debauched. Kick them off the teams and out of school and let the law deal with them the same way they should be dealt with anywhere, including the military and congress.

Real reform. The only real reform is to treat athletic pursuits as legitimate. Let football players major in football and basketball players in basketball and throw out all the really stupid rules. Is pursuing a sheepskin in cultural anthropology going to prepare you for life any better, or open more doors, than a varsity letter? It depends on who you are and there is no reason why universities cannot provide both venues.

Forget for a minute the positive things athletic programs can bring to a university and the community it resides in, including economic benefits and a common interest that unites all kinds of strange bedfellows. Instead consider where this all fits in the larger scheme of things. With issues of war and peace, chemical weapons, hunger, starvation, obesity, failing schools, medical costs, racism, sexism, the disappearing middle class, a rigged financial system, campaign finance reform and a warming planet, this issue falls somewhere between the price of vodka in Russia and the fate of Lady Gaga.

Jay Zenner is a Durham Realtor and was member of the “prep-squad” for Notre Dame’s 1966 national football championship team.