NCAA Division I Athletics: the Essential Hypocrisy

November 12, 2011

Writing in this morning’s New York Times (The Institutional Pass), columnist Joe Nocera writes “What goes on in the typical big-time college football program constitutes abuse of the athletes who play the game.”  He starts by addressing the sexual assault scandal at Penn State, but he connects that  dreadful situation to the wider context of big-time collegiate athletics.  Here’s the connection Nocera is arguing:  “When Paterno averted his eyes from Jerry Sandusky, he was just doing what came naturally as a college football coach.” I take it he is saying that the rottenness at Penn State is not an isolated case but rather a horrifying extension of what happens every day.

Argues Nocera, “Big-time college football requires grown men to avert their eyes from the essential hypocrisy of the enterprise. Coaches take home multimillion-dollar salaries, while the players who make them rich don’t even get “scholarships” that cover the full cost of attending college. They push their “student-athletes” to take silly courses that won’t get in the way of football. When players are seriously injured and can no longer play, their coaches often yank their scholarships, forcing them to drop out of school.”

He quotes James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan (so yes, someone once complicitous in the business of big-time university sports):

College football and men’s basketball has drifted so far away from the educational purpose of the university.  They exploit young people and prevent them from getting a legitimate college education. They place the athlete’s health at enormous risk, which becomes apparent later in life. We are supposed to be developing human potential, not making money on their backs. Football strikes at the core values of a university.

“Essential hypocrisy.”  “Strikes at the core values of a university.”  This is very strong talk I’m unaccustomed to hearing from major media or university leaders.  I’ve argued before that we should end intercollegiate athletics as we know it here, here, here, here, and here.

But I’ve also argued there is an approach to intercollegiate athletics worth preserving, and that’s the approach of NCAA Division III — the Division that emphasizes participation and doesn’t give athletic scholarships.  I can’t make that argument for D3 any better than a former Earlham student athlete, JoBeth Buckley, who is now assistant to the president at Earlham.

D3 athletics is threatened by the allure of Division I, by the money and the relentless media hype.  The same “essential hypocrisy” could infect it.  But we do know how to do it right.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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