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.

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.

In the case of football stadiums, coliseum might be a better metaphor than cathedral. (UC–Berkeley’s football stadium was actually modeled after the Roman Colosseum.) The Roman republic’s gladiatorial matches were enormously popular, providing sponsors with publicity while satisfying the masses’ desire for cheap entertainment. When the moral depravity of the games became undeniable, imperial edicts were passed to restrict them, but they were largely ineffective. The people could not go without their blood sport, and even Emperor Constantine turned a blind eye to his own laws.

California Memorial Stadium
Fans crowd the stands at UC–Berkeley's California Memorial Stadium to watch the California Golden Bears play the Northwestern Wildcats on Aug. 31, 2013.

Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

The games finally ended thanks to the outrage of a monk. In 404 C.E., St. Telemachus had had enough. “After gazing upon the combat from the amphitheatre, he descended into the arena, and tried to separate the gladiators,” writes Bishop Theodoret in his History of the Church. “The sanguinary spectators, possessed by the demon who delights in the effusion of blood, were irritated at the interruption of their cruel sports, and stoned him who had occasioned the cessation. On being apprised of this circumstance, the admirable [Emperor Honorius] numbered him with the victorious martyrs, and abolished these iniquitous spectacles.”

American college football has faced people like Telemachus, educators and administrators who resist the will (and deep pockets) of fanatics. In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, eliminated the school’s football program. It was not a popular move. Harvard’s athletic director mocked Hutchins’ physique, and Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward likened dropping football to Communism. Even Hutchins’ fellow university presidents were skeptical. “There have been times when I wished that we might have colleges and universities without football,” Purdue University president Edward C. Elliott told the Tribune. “This is perhaps a bit Utopian. Perhaps Chicago will prove that Utopia is possible. But Purdue is not Utopian and intends to continue to play football—and, we hope, good football.”

Fifteen years later, Hutchins reflected on the significance of his decision in an article for Sports Illustrated. “No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment,” he wrote. “Anybody who has watched, as I have, 12 university presidents spend half a day solemnly discussing the Rose Bowl agreement, or anybody who has read portentous discussions of the ‘decline’ of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Chicago because of the recurring defeats of its football team must realize that we in America are in a different world.”

Hutchins was aghast at his fellow presidents, who believed that “football had become the spiritual core of the modern campus.” He was disgusted by a system that reduced boys “to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos” and by colleges that “violate the rules they themselves have made,” pandering to “alumni with endowment-available money.”  

“To anybody seriously interested in education intercollegiate football presents itself as an infernal nuisance,” Hutchins declared. “If all the time, thought and effort that university presidents, professors and press agents have had to devote to this subject could have been spent on working out and explaining to the public a defensible program of higher education we should long since have solved every problem that confronts the colleges and universities of the U.S. Since there is no visible connection between big-time football and higher education, the tremendous importance attached to it by colleges and universities can only confuse the public about what these institutions are.” 

In the aftermath of the school’s decision to drop football, Chicago had indeed proved that utopia was possible. It succeeded, Hutchins noted proudly, in demonstrating that “‘normal’ young Americans could get excited about the life of the mind.”

Don’t think for a moment that Chicago is some freakish exception. In 2009, Northeastern University dropped its football program, to the dismay of many alumni and students. What happened? “For Northeastern, life after football is good,” reported the Boston Globe a year later. “There has been little or no blowback from alumni or students, as money once spent on football now serves other campus goals. In fact, the number of donors is up (from 19,559 to 21,797) as is the number of applicants (37,693 for 2,800 spots), and the stature of the university continues to rise.”

At Boston University, which dropped its football program in 1997, the number of alumni donors is up this year, despite a nationwide downward trend in annual giving. Intramural sports participation has risen 55 percent. And then there’s Spelman, and Hofstra, and UC–Santa Barbara, and, well, the list goes on.

Platitudes about potential loss of spirit aside, there’s only one serious obstacle facing schools that are tempted to get rid of football: the lure of big money. Money makes universities do funny things. In exchange for a $6 million gift to the athletics program, Florida Atlantic University renamed its football stadium after controversy-wracked private prison corporation GEO Group, owned by alumnus, former board of trustees member, and enthusiastic booster George Zoley. (The naming rights deal eventually collapsed amid a torrent of bad publicity.)

As I contemplate the recently renovated $62 million stadium on my own campus (naming rights still available!), it strikes me that a traditional religion once compromised its morals to pay for fancy cathedrals. Originally a minor aspect of Catholicism, indulgences took off when they were monetized effectively. Despite limits placed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, churches continued to bleed funds from the faithful in exchange for promises of salvation. The issue came to a head in 1517 when Pope Leo X sold indulgences to finance renovations of St. Peter’s Basilica. Scandalized, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and started the Protestant Reformation.

It is time for our own reformation. Students and parents: Choose schools based on the educational experiences they offer, not the ranking of their teams. Alumni: Donate because your school taught you something, not because it wins games. Faculty, administrators, and presidents: Don’t let your fear of being martyred stop you from speaking out publicly against big-money college sports. If higher education in America wants to preserve its integrity, we have no choice but to demand together: Get your stadiums out of our churches.

Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter