Fuel for the Debate On College Sports
RETHINKING COLLEGE ATHLETICS. Edited by Judith Andre & David N. James, Temple University Press, 257pp., $34.95.
AS the American public grows increasingly skeptical about the integrity of big-time intercollegiate sports, college officials, commentators in the media, and even members of Congress are talking about "reforming" big-time college sports. They recite a litany of concerns: the poor academic progress of athletes, the rapidly escalating expenses of sports programs, and the seemingly endless string of rulebreaking. These are serious and vexing problems.
Amid all the discussion about reform, however, little attention has been paid to actually "rethinking" the system of American college athletics. Few, if any, of today's would-be reformers ask the toughest of questions about big-time college sports, either because they consider the system unalterable or because they think raising the issues can only get them in hot water.
The editors of this collection of essays, bound neither by the restraints of practicality nor by the threat of losing their jobs for speaking out, ask the tough questions plainly in the book's introduction: "On the one hand, why do colleges keep these programs? On the other, should colleges keep them?" Sixteen academics from a range of disciplines tackle these issues. Some of the essays are too abstract to interest any but the most academic of readers, and others, including those in a section on drug te sting of athletes, cover too narrow a subject. The result is an intriguing but meandering look at the issues.
Most of the essayists defend the inherent value of sports for athlete and spectator alike and praise the educational role that athletics can play. But most of them also conclude that the idealized view of sports is distant from what really is happening now.
For example, Robert L. Simon, a professor and chair of the philosophy department at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., argues that an intercollegiate athletics program can contribute to a university by providing a showcase for excellence and by helping to build a sense of community. But Simon also writes: "Surely it is indefensible for the very institution charged with keeping standards of truth and excellence before our minds to cheat in order to win ballgames or to merely use athletes to achieve fame and fortune, ignoring the educational goals it is supposed to protect."
Allen Guttmann, professor of English and American studies at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., notes that in other countries, where the public's thirst for sports is served by private clubs rather than by colleges, "the corruption of the university is avoided by the elimination of temptation." He proposes such a system for the United States.
Roger Noll, an economist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., would not go so far as to altogether separate big-time athletics from college campuses. Rejecting the oft-heard argument that paying athletes would professionalize college sports, he proposes that college athletes be paid a free-market wage. "This is a serious issue, but unfortunately, it is being raised approximately a half-century late," he writes. "Professionalization does not lie in how much someone is paid; it lies in the nature of the bargain between a university and a player. If athletes play little or no role in campus life, if they are not in any meaningful sense students, and if they are associated with the university only to participate in its athletic program, they are professionals, regardless of the amount they are paid."
In the final essay, John MacAloon, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, argues that no meaningful change of any kind will be accomplished unless and until college faculties recognize athletic abuses as "the most profound attacks on professorial and intellectual integrity." If faculty members do not insist on academic integrity in their sports programs, he says, "instead of shrugging our shoulders or blaming others, then it is we who are fundamentally dishonest and exploitative." He su ggests that mass teaching strikes might be the quickest route to reform on individual campuses.
From the practical to the fanciful, this book offers a broad range of views about what can be done about the problems in college sports. Because its voices are so diverse, the results are uneven. But for readers interested in a topic about which there has been precious little thoughtful analysis, "Rethinking College Athletics" is a valuable addition to the debate.