It’s Time to Evict Big-Time Sports from American Higher Education

The stadium scene.
Dec. 30 2013 11:23 AM

Get Your Stadiums Out of Our Churches

It’s time to evict big-time sports from American higher education.

California Golden Bears
Blasphemy?

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

James Madison University, my current employer, recently commissioned an “overall strategic plan” for its athletics program. Revealed to the public in an admirable gesture of institutional transparency, the plan claims that JMU is “well-positioned” for a transition to the highest level of college sports, the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Though administrators are open to the idea of moving on up, the James Madison faculty, myself included, is substantially less enthused. Why do the vast majority of us oppose the move?

First, we worry about the numbers. There is no question that FBS programs are risky investments and that they’re correlated with disproportionately high levels of institutional athletics funding. (Statements to the contrary may reflect a conflict of interest, like when the company that produced your feasibility study is also retained to recruit your new head coach.) There’s also widespread concern about endorsing a financial scheme dependent on unpaid labor for its solvency, labor that may one day be declared illegal. And yes, longtime professors who saw their salaries frozen for five years are viscerally upset by a plan that suggests hiking student fees to fund a major investment in our football program.

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Yet the financial cost of college football is nothing compared with its cost to our integrity. Are some people such addicts that they will continue to rationalize the exploitation of workers on whose battered bodies their beloved entertainment industry is built? Does the rush of a win for the home team allow them to forget those teenagers who gamble on unlikely stardom and lose? Are they willing to stomach endemic sexism and the scourge of campus sexual assault?

So be it. But I will not stand by as the engineers and patrons of this system pervert my religion and desecrate its churches.

I see my job as both a career and a devotion. Max Weber, the founder of modern social science, referred to scholarship as “a vocation,” evoking the traditional sense of a divine calling to serve in the priesthood. The earliest universities descended from religious schools, and it was only in the 19th century that Harvard, America’s first university, changed its motto from “Truth for Christ and Church” to “Truth.”

Though shorn of denominational religious rhetoric, that simple motto still represents the mission of higher education, the core of our academic faith. Professors puzzle over ancient languages, map the stars, and grade endless assignments not because “those who can’t do, teach,” but because we are devoted to truth and feel a duty to profess it. We think—we know—that our vocation has always been, and will continue to be, an essential element of any healthy society. In the words of another university motto: “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

It is not my place to criticize the status of athletics in America. On that, our nation has already made a near unanimous decision. As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel puts it in his book What Money Can’t Buy: “From Yankee Stadium in New York to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our civil religion, public spaces that gather people from different walks of life in rituals of loss and hope, profanity and prayer.”

But these cathedrals should not be the crown jewels of college campuses, and athletes should not be our evangelists. It’s true that academia and sports complement each other—Plato himself was an excellent wrestler, and Confucian students were expected to master archery and charioteering alongside writing and arithmetic. Yet Plato and Confucius would surely be appalled, as we should be, to hear that University of California–Berkeley pays its Nobel laureate in physics one-tenth the salary of its football coach, or that some institutional athletics subsidies can reach 1.5 times the total library budget. The dubious profitability of athletics is beside the point: These figures represent and legitimize a profound disorder of values.

America, uniquely among nations, has normalized an absurd relationship between sports and higher education. Just imagine if a similar phenomenon were born of the Vatican’s newly launched cricket team. The sentiment behind the team is laudable. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi hailed cricket as an “expression of inter-culturality” that could inspire “dialogue between peoples,” and seminarian/cricketer Antony Fernando praised sports as a means of learning “to accept both victory and defeat.”

But what if 10 years from now the Vatican’s star cricketers are better known than saints, and more people recognize the coach’s name than the Pope’s? What if parishioners actually gave alms in proportion to the team’s success? What if the St. Peter’s Cricket Club stadium dwarfed St. Peter’s Basilica? Catholicism, like our education system, would look like an unholy charade, its former worshippers slowly lost to services at the new cathedral of civic religion.

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