Friday, July 14, 2006

A for Effort, A+ for Beating Alabama

Today's New York Times has a front page story below the fold detailing how Auburn football players got very high grades for independent study courses in sociology that were more nebulous than usual for the discipline.

Awhile back, the Times had another college football "scandal" story involving fake grades below the fold on its front page. It must've been a bad scandal to get such great placement, because the rest of page one, banner headline and all, was devoted to the stock market Crash of '29.

Not to disparage the fine work done on the Auburn story by the Times' Pete Thamel, but there can be no more futile beat in journalism than covering the uneasy, oft sleazy relationship between college athletics and college academics. Winning on Saturday has trumped the Socratic ideal of scholarship for, well, for always. In "My Life and Hard Times", James Thurber recounts a scene in a pre-World War I Ohio State classroom where a professor frantically attempts to keep star tackle Bolenciewicz eligible for the big game. This broadly comic tall tale wasn't very different from the efforts of the Auburn sociology department to boost Cadillac Williams' grade point average.

All right-thinking people are supposed to deplore the corruption of academe by the grubby pursuit of triumph on the playing field. It's a bona-fide Problem. But when a Problem isn't solved for going on a century, the inevitable conclusion is that no one really wants to. And if no one wants to solve a Problem, is it a problem at all?

In short, what Auburn wants to do to foster its football program is Auburn's business, and there's no reason the rest of us should care. College football is a superb sport that gives millions of Americans great pleasure. Few of those millions are so brain-dead as to suppose the "scholar-athletes" are 100 percent, or even 50 percent, committed to higher education.

What's surprising is how many athletes ARE passable scholars. Someone who plays a Division I sport on an athletic scholarship essentially is working a full-time job to pay for their college education. Lots and lots of unathletic Americans do the same thing, but we don't sterotype them as dumb jocks if it takes them longer than 4 years to get a degree. It must be very strange to be a college football hero these days. People simultaneously idolize you and look down their noses at you, then insist this contradiction is your fault, not theirs.

College sports "scandals" are losing what little power to shock they had, mainly because of the changing nature of colleges themselves. From Harvard and Yale down to "Round the Corner CC, these institutions are the most money-crazed institutions in our money-crazed society. Fund-raising isn't just the school president's 24/7 job-it's everybody's. Students from my son's school, BU, get paid a pittance to cold call parents and ask if they'd like to donate a little something on top of $40 K annual tuition, room, and board. Jack Abramoff wouldn't have the stones to pull that move.

At many schools, one suspects Auburn included, the football team is the Big Rainmaker on Campus, the driving engine for large-scale fundraising efforts. Given that status, a few independent study courses of dubious merit are a small price to pay. Indeed, the most newsworthy aspect of Thamel's story was the refreshing lack of guilt displayed by its subjects.

The business of college football is never going to change. Maybe there's no reason it should.


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Moe Lauzier said...

I reat the NY Times article and I think you've nailed it.

Moe Lauzier

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Moe Lauzier said...


I read the NY Times articler (thanks to Jonny Miller sending it to me). I think you nailed the subject. Good job.

Moe Lauzier


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