Not for the first time, sportswriter and commentator Buzz Bissinger has everybody buzzing about one of his frank opinion pieces, this one launched in the Wall Street Journal. His provocative title: “Why College Football Should Be Banned.”
Bissinger deserves credit for being willing to bite the hands that feed him: he is the author of “Friday Night Lights,” and many of Bissinger fans, at least up to now, tend to be football fans too. His article, however, is also one of those periodic slaps in the face of cultural apathy that occasionally causes a shift, as when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a little novel that alerted a lot of people to the obvious fact that a system in which human beings were bought, sold, and bred like cattle might not be consistent with civilized morality. It doesn’t take a genius, a revolutionary or a careful analyst to conclude that big time college football is corrupt and corrupting to the core. It only takes a willingness to brush aside rationalizations and face the truth.
Here are the arguments Bissinger presents to support his thesis:
- Football has nothing to do with academics.
- It is a distraction from both the purpose of higher education and attention to the serious problems facing the university system.
- With college tuition reaching outrageous levels and the college loan system teetering, university expenditures on pricey football programs are unconscionable.
- The major beneficiaries from college football are the NFL, which uses it as its minor league system at minimal cost; pathetic alumni, who wrap their self-esteem up with the fortunes of their alma mater’s football fortunes; and obscenely-compensated football coaches.
- Football programs, contrary to what the public might think, often lose money and become a drag on tuition funds.
- Colleges like Maryland have cut other varsity sports (eight of them, in Maryland’s case) to allow it to pay for football.
- The representation that the athletes are students is largely a sham, with many of them failing to graduate and the majority spending minimal time on substantive course study.
- The athletes are exploited.
- The game entails serious health effects, primarily head trauma, that are only now being recognized.
I’m sure we can come up with a #10, too. Oh! I have one: Penn State. We were just given a front row seat to a frightening display of how even a “model” football program could warp the priorities and ethical values of an entire campus culture.
Of course Bissinger’s attack has college football supporters scrambling into a defense formation. What can they come up with? Not much, but it’s a fascinating study of how rationalizations rush into voids caused by the lack of substantive arguments. One college football-hyping blog’s first response was this:
“…Why hasn’t the Wall Street Journal started pictorial galleries about the fraudsters at insurance companies, banks and investment funds – the guys who actually pay their wages?”
This is a rationalization I call the “They’re just as bad” excuse, a pretty pathetic one that tries to distract attention from genuine wrongdoing by pointing out similar or worse wrongdoing elsewhere. That’s just the beginning of a long trail of lame protests in the piece, all mustering only rationalizations in support of what should have solid, well-understood and persuasive justifications, if there are any. Sportswriter Tim Hyland’s twitter feed is a cornucopia of peripheral attacks on Bissinger’s arguments, some of it a thinly veiled suggestion that Bissinger’s case is motivated by racism. He also likes one of my least favorite rationalizations, a variation on “Everybody does it,” the one that holds that if you don’t focus on everything that’s wrong, you shouldn’t focus on anything. “I find it dishonest to pick just on college football; if those players are exploited, aren’t other college athletes, too?” he tweets. The exploitation issue was just one small part of Bissinger’s brief, of course, and in my view, it’s the weakest and least important. Never mind: if Hyland thinks the prospect of returning all college sports to intramural levels would harm students one bit, he is wrong. Students should not go to college to learn to play games. It’s not a radical concept.
Hyland is shameless; in his paucity of genuine rebuttal points, he descends to absurdity. “…ban all sport for all kids. Let America get even fatter than it already is,” he tweets. That’s nothing, however, on the absurdity scale compared to actor Jay Thomas, who told CNN’s morning gang today that if college football was banned, there would be a massive increase in violence and domestic abuse, like removing thorazine from the regimen of mental patients. Note to self: “Stay away from Jay Thomas!”
I think the Capstone Report made the rebuttal that best shows how desperately devoid of counter-arguments Bissinger-bashers are. The article on that site lurches from clichés to myths and back to rationalizations, with some non sequiturs tossed in. Among the selection:
- U.S. universities are “the best in the world,” so why mess with a good thing?…except that college football has nothing to do with the quality of education, and many of the best universities have no football, or very marginal programs.
- “No academic purpose? Well, colleges have many activities for students with little to do with academics. Colleges small and large hold pizza parties, support special interest clubs, and allow religious or political organizations to function on campus. Oh, and don’t forget the ubiquitous presence of fraternities and sororities on every major university campus in the United States. These extracurricular activities build on the underlying academic function of the college environment.” Yes, but those other activities don’t distort college budgets, cost millions of dollars and send kids to the hospital with closed head injuries. Other than that, yeah, pizza parties are exactly like college football.
- “Life is about more than work, and so too is college. Leisure has an important place.” Boy, he’s got Buzz there! If there’s one thing students need help finding, it’s leisure activities….
- “How often do you see people of different political parties cheer together? How often do you see race truly ignored in this country? Yet, at football games, we see all of this.” Yes, and also at movies, rock concerts and field hockey games.
- ..and a lot more. Go ahead and play “Spot that rationalization!” here. (Yes, “Everybody does it” makes a prominent appearance.)
The inconvenient truth is that in this ethical argument, much as in the issue of raising animals for food and many others, there really aren’t sufficient justifications to justify the conduct. Major college football programs in their current form, exist because of the raw fact that a lot of influential people like them a lot and/or profit from them, and are perfectly happy to overlook their flaws, distortions, corrupting influences and other obvious problems. Many of these people know Bissinger is right; they just resent being reminded.
Graphic: Mad Mike’s America
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