No university president, athletic director, or coach reacted positively when football players at Northwestern University attempt to join a union. Now we know that they got the message. Huffington Post reports that officials in the NCAA will consider loosening the rules on paying athletes. The proposal would not affect all schools, only the largest conferences. It would also only apply to high profile men’s sports, such as football and basketball. Compensation would not be direct pay, but increased cost of living stipends and insurance policies. No one knows if these measures will be accepted. I do know this: If the players at Northwestern had not been bold enough to consider forming a union, the NCAA and its member schools would have never have considered paying athletes. Workers in other industries need to take note.
[On Sundays, this blog explores intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]
College Sports and American Values
I normally agree with Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander. Often Telander will cast things in a light that makes readers challenge their beliefs. In his column in today's paper, however, he takes on an easy target, Joe Paterno, and the worship given to top college coaches. When it comes to the crimes committed against children, I agree with Telander 100%. I also agree that coaches are treated with more respect than professors and teachers. However, we need to keep a balance between what disgusts us today and what we should remember about how we treated sports in the past and what has changed over the past few decades.
I’ve frequently written about the great basketball coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden built one of the greatest dynasties of all time while following a strict code of values. In his nineties, Wooden wrote several books that outline his beliefs. Other coaches taught their players similar lessons and helped them finish their educations. By all accounts, Joe Paterno ran a clean football program and graduated his players. His failure was to report a crime, an act that has cost him his reputation and could cost him even more in the future.
What has changed in college sports since the times of John Wooden and Ray Meyer of DePaul? Money. College football and basketball generate millions of dollars for universities. They also help schools build a “brand” that helps increase admissions and contributions from alumni. TV contributes to the problem. We’ve gone from a game or two being televised each week to having entire networks developed to college sports, college conferences, and even individual schools. Schools (not players) even draw income from video games that are based on college sports. All of these factors help create a culture where sports overwhelms all other activities on campus.
Telander notes that no school builds statues to English, history, or math professors. That point is true. But is that problem driven by universities and coaches, or by a culture that worships sports and disdains learning and study? America focuses more and more on entertainment and fun, often sitting in front of a screen of whirling images. We’ve lost the ability to think critically that comes with reading and the discipline needed to learn subjects like math and scinece. Telander’s criticism is accurate on the surface, but we need to look deeper to see the real problem. We need to look in the mirror and accept our responsibility. Do our values fit our words? Clearly, college sports is just one symptom of a culture that has lost its way. We all need to change.