One of my favorite blogs is Margaret Soltan’s University Diaries. Soltan teaches English at George Washington University, and her blog (UD for short) deals almost exclusively with academic affairs. Among her targets are plagiarizing pedants, administrators who shamelessly pad their expense accounts, and lazy wordsmiths compulsively given to cloaking otherwise virtuous adjectives and nouns with gratuitous quotation marks (e.g., the Fox “News” Network). Soltan is profane, incisive, and snotty, a delightful combination.
Her most searing derision, however, is reserved for big-time college athletics and the corruption brought to campus by ambitious university presidents, overpaid celebrity coaches, and scholar athletes whose behavior sometimes, to be charitable, seems to put the moron in oxymoron (damn, thought I’d coined that phrase; no such luck: 85 hits in Google). Soltan delights in exposing institutions whose promises of athletic glory have devolved into staggering debt, diminished academic integrity, criminal activity on the part of pampered, unsupervised ballplayers, and shameful graduation rates. She is the sworn enemy of the jock sniffer, whether he (and it's usually a man) is an influential trustee or an adjunct professor of applied kinesiology.
And yet…and yet I think about Boise State. Ten years ago, Boise State was just another entry in the almanac, a no-count midlevel public university of little interest to anyone outside the 208 area code. To teach at Boise State was to toil in academic obscurity, ignored by your peers, forgotten by most of your graduate school classmates, disrespected by a world in which pedigree often substitutes for accomplishment.
Then came the undefeated season of 2006. Suddenly, everyone knew about Boise State University and its blue turf field. A school that had once been nothing more than the flagship campus of Ada County had achieved a degree of recognition previously reserved for the elite public universities of much larger states. Forget about the impact on alumni donors and prospective students, which was probably considerable. Just acknowledge the boost in the self-esteem of faculty members whose convention badges had heretofore attracted either indifference or pity.
Or think about Texas Tech University, a research institution sprawled across the flat, dusty plains of West Texas, forever in the shadows of the more prestigious campuses in Austin and College Station. Imagine spending your career in Lubbock, a metastasized truck stop town, employed by a university whose name includes a word that doesn't even exist in the English language. (Unlike Caltech or Virginia Tech, the "Tech" in Texas Tech apparently doesn't stand for anything.) How must it feel to have to explain, as an acquaintance of mine who taught there once did, that you work for a real university and not some sort of trade school, a public DeVry Institute?
In 2001, your school hires Bobby Knight to coach basketball and your days of explaining are over. Your university matters and you matter. Around the same time, your football team becomes Quarterback U, and people stop asking whether or not longhorn cattle roam the streets of your adopted home town. Texas Tech is added to the lists of prospective job applicants who might never have otherwise considered pursuing a career more than ten miles beyond the nearest Whole Foods franchise.
These things matter and I wonder if critics who have never experienced life at a non-elite state university truly understand how much they mean to an underappreciated academic community. Nothing elevates a second-tier campus like a nationally ranked football or basketball team. Winning has consequences that can't be measured by charts and graphs.
And yet…and yet I still recall the day, well over a decade ago, that my office doorway was filled by the three-hundred pound body of a down lineman who had failed his midterm examination, and not barely. I was, at the time, employed by a Division I football school with an undistinguished history, the sort of program that probably sends more kids to prison than it does to the National Football League. It is one thing to regard the failure of major college athletics in the abstract. It is something else altogether to watch that failure stare at you from six and a half feet above the floor.
The young man who met me that afternoon fought back tears as he described the hours of preparation he had spent, both in compulsory study hall and on his own time, trying to make sense of books and lectures that might as well have been in a foreign language. Was he making it all up? Maybe, though football players are not generally accomplished actors, and football players don't cry. More important, this particular lineman was not asking me to change his mark; he was begging me to work with him on subsequent exams so he could somehow earn a passing grade for the term.
You probably want to hear the Hallmark ending, the story of how one dedicated professor changed the future of an inner city kid otherwise ticketed for a life on the streets. Sorry, this isn't it. I did work with the young man, but I'm afraid I can't recall whether or not he ultimately received credit for the course. I was not on the tenure track, and most of my efforts that semester were concentrated on trying the keep a roof over my own head. I very much hope he graduated, but I never followed up.
Nevertheless, his is the face I see when critics of college sports talk about the human cost of enticing academically unqualified kids to campus and then carelessly disposing of them as soon as their athletic eligibility expires. Must faculty self-esteem, alumni generosity, and higher enrollments be purchased at such a cost? Is it even possible to succeed at Division I football or basketball without humming Pomp and Circumstance into the ears of mothers and fathers who gratefully purchase frames for diplomas their sons will never receive? And what of the ones who make it, the 32% for whom a 32% percent graduation rate means deliverance rather than outrage. To what extent do their accomplishments offset the failures of so many others?
I happened to be in New Orleans during the season LSU won a share of the national football championship. If you have never seen the fans of a southern flagship university when the wave is cresting, you have no idea of the potential impact of college athletics on the emotional well-being of a state. The joy was palpable, and it seemed to touch everyone, black and white, old and young, Cajun and Baptist. From Slidell to Shreveport, a state otherwise known mainly for the corruptions of its politicians and the licentiousness of its largest city bathed in a pride that could not be tarnished by even the most withering Yankee sneer.
A couple of years later, as that magnificent, licentious city experienced its horrifying public death, I wondered what that 2003 national championship really meant. Was it perhaps (one could hope) at least a single moment of fulfillment, a precious memory, that could never be taken away from people who had now lost everything else? Or, instead, was that magical team actually more illustrative of the unspoken social decay that Katrina had washed into the open? How could a state government shower a coaching staff with millions of dollars but fail to prepare its most vulnerable citizens for an all too predictable disaster? And how would it ever again be possible to imagine the site of LSU's greatest triumph, the Louisiana Superdome, without regarding it as an iconic image of tragedy and malfeasance, a Dorian Gray version of the World Trade Center towers that had crumbled from the inside?
Enough of this. I have no tidy ending to this essay, only a persistent ambivalence. I would like to think that someone somewhere has an answer, a way to continue playing games that mean so much without mortgaging the souls of every professor, administrator, coach, and taxpayer who comes into contact with a D-1 program. Is it wrong for anonymous universities to look at Boise State or South Florida and seek to achieve recognition on the athletic field that will almost certainly forever elude them in the laboratory and the classroom? Indeed, is it wrong to hope that gridiron success will spill over to the benefit of an otherwise undistinguished academic program?
And if it is wrong, how do we make it right without telling the Florida Atlantics and Western Kentuckys that they should simply know their place and embrace their inferiority?
UPDATE: I changed the title to make it snappier, changed a few words and phrases here and there, and accurately recalled visiting New Orleans--rather than Baton Rouge--during the 2003 football season. I visited Baton Rouge, home of LSU, a year later.