Saturday, September 03, 2011

Dirty football

"Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. 23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:22-23)

It's college football time, and as I watched the end of last night's Baylor-TCU "instant classic" I was reminded that there is no more exciting sport to watch. But my conscience bothers me.  

I've written several times (example) about the problems I see with our minor-league athletics being wrapped in our non-profit university system. The NCAA takes advantage of students to enrich non-students. Resources are crowded out of education to support sports--which doesn't help our country build capital to increase productivity in the long-run.  

Last night, PBS NewsHour had a segment on the recent scandals, particularly at the University of Miami, where a booster running a ponzi scheme paid for everything (NY Times) from prostitutes to abortions for players and their friends. The linked article notes that Miami isn't likely to face the harshest penalties because it would cost the NCAA and the ACC "too much money."  There are rules, like not allowing a player to profit from selling his own memorabilia even though the school and NCAA can sell it for profit, that should irk anyone who cherishes liberty. But uneven enforcement of the rules or saying "that's just how it is" is maddening for my sense of justice.  The Wall Street Journal chimes in with a rating of all 120 teams and how "embarrassed" their fans should be. 

Kevin Blackiston, the journalism professor NewsHour interviewed for the segment made the point that the entire system is corrupt, starting with the NCAA overseers, citing the recent Fiesta Bowl scandal as an example-- a non-profit organization showering money and gifts (like visits to strip clubs) on NCAA powers-that-be.  

But Blackiston made the following comment in this exchange with Jeffrey Brown that stuck with me: 

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It is a very -- to me, a very unholy alliance that we have right now between what is a revenue-generating operation in college athletics placed under the umbrella of a nonprofit institution of higher education, which, to my knowledge, doesn't have a mission statement that says, win the national championship, produce All-Americans, that sort of thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, in the meantime, as we said, the games go on, right?
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. And I will be watching them this weekend.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. 

So, even though we all know it's "unholy," "exploitative," and "corrupt" we will continue to watch and pay money to keep it going anyway because it's just so much fun.  

That's what gets my conscience-- if you know something is wrong and harmful shouldn't you make a stand against it?  I have a little different perspective on this because I teach student-athletes and see the exploitation a little more clearly in their day-to-day lives, but it's also obvious to everyone who watches the sport.  

What about the Church here?  Shouldn't the Church be different from the culture around us? I've thought about this a few times (example) over the years and found the Church doesn't have much to say. Several years ago, I quit watching Major League Baseball in the wake of the steroids scandal because I felt the evidence showed the problems weren't found in just a few bad apples but rather that the entire system was not what it claimed to be.  But now I see our collegiate athletic system does much more harm to its players than MLB ever did--the system is a scandal in and of itself, and it's not just football.  

My pastor is a Michigan fan, he even mentioned from the pulpit that he "makes no bones about it," he loves watching the kids line up and bang helmets every week. Other local pastors tweet eagerly about football and other sports. I would just love to hear one admit once that "Yes, the system is broken, unproductive, and exploitative but it entertains me so I watch it."  

It seems awkward to start a conversation with a pastor about, but I'd love for one to spell out how he has achieved a clear conscience about watching it. Because the more I watch and investigate, the more frustrated I become. There is no empirical evidence that the resources directed toward football is welfare enhancing for any university. The more I see football players flunk our classes and then transfer to their next playing spot, the more ashamed I am to be a part of the system. The more pastors and university presidents I see cheering the system on the more confused I become. 

Socrates said "the unexamined life isn't worth living," and I agree. But the examined life can lead you to some conclusions that make the life feel a good bit lonely. So, who wants to join me? 


Rodney Reeves said...


Don't you think it's interesting that the bribes that go along with this egregious behavior often involve salacious temptations? It's never, "Athletes were offered free passes to Disney World" but always involves prostitutes, strip clubs, etc.

The problem, as you are well aware, is big business. Money talks because entertainment means everything to us.

I've often wondered whether the very context of competition, beating your opponent, is somehow the opposite of what it means to be a Christian.

JDTapp said...

Yes! As I've thought about this and reached certain convictions I've become a lot less competitive about a lot more things. I've had problems reconciling that, though. I should do all that I do "heartily, as for the Lord" but I think there may be a line between that idea and "competitiveness." It's something I wrestle with.