College Sports: Foul Ball or Fair Play?

The Pope Center recently held a round-table conference titled “Making the Most of the Undergraduate Experience,” featuring top academics and higher education critics from around the country. Three sub-topics were discussed: Incentives for Excellence in Teaching, College Athletics, and The Problem of Disengaged Students.

The following is a summary of the discussion on College Athletics. The foundations of the discussion were presented by Bill Thierfelder and Murray Sperber, two men who have each seen the world of athletics from many different angles. Their current perspectives provide a significant contrast in opinions, but they share common ground—they both love sports, and they (and other participants in the discussion) agreed that something is seriously amiss in the world of college athletics.

Thierfelder is the president of Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a former national champion in the long jump, and has a Ph.D. in sports psychology. He has worked with many world-class athletes, particularly NFL wide receivers. Preceding his arrival at Belmont Abbey, he was the CEO of the York Barbell Company.

Murray Sperber was a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Indiana for many years. He briefly played semi-pro basketball in France, and covered college sports for three years as a newspaper reporter. He is the author of several popular books on college sports, including Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippled Undergraduate Education. He now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.

Thierfelder focused on his vision of what college athletics should be—a means to train the whole person and a way to lead an athlete to virtue.

He rejected a common assessment that college athletics have become so tainted by money that they should be eliminated or given professional status. To Thierfelder, sports have great value in forming the character of students. He said that he could understand the expense of college sports if it served a greater purpose than making money (profits are in fact confined to only a few athletic departments).

He described sports as an “artificial environment” in which good or bad behavior can be taught, depending on who is directing that environment. And he said coaches, administrators, and athletic departments must be held accountable for what they actually try to accomplish, that “the student leaving our environment” has to be viewed as an end product of their efforts in terms of their character as well as their performance.

“If the end is world class performance and the development of virtue and the formation of a whole person, body, mind and spirit, fantastic!” Thierfelder stated. He suggested that, too often, the goal is to simply win championships, with no higher purpose in mind. Still, he sees no divide between world-class athletic performance and virtue—“the two go together, world-class performance is a virtue, but it’s only one of them.” The problem with collegiate athletics is that only athletic performance is rewarded, and not the other aspects of virtue, he said. “Coaches have to become teachers and mentors.”

Thierfelder is not merely hypothesizing about the restoration of virtue. He has even started a national campaign called “Sports Properly Directed” to take back the athletic environment one school and one coach at a time “(The name comes from an address given by Pope Pius XII called “Sport at the Service of the Spirit.”)

Sperber, on the other hand, presented a darker focus. He is the author of several books strongly criticizing big-time college sports. His emphasis continues to be on exposing the problems of corruption in college athletics, and he indicated little hope for any shift in the focus of athletic departments away from winning and money.

He amusingly described how college athletics were born in corruption and commercialization. The very first intercollegiate athletic event was a rowing contest between Harvard and Yale in the 1830s. It was not only intended to advertise real estate for a railroad company, but both teams had numerous “ringers” with no known connections to the school. “Before an oar hit the water, it’s highly commercial and they’re cheating,” he laughed.

He said that athletic departments at the big Division I universities (and the university administrations) have given themselves over to an “athletic arms race” where money drives everything. He cited how an assistant basketball coach at Kansas State University was given a $200,000 bonus for recruiting one player, Michael Beasley, who left the school after one year. For that year, the assistant coach made more money than the school’s president.

Even the Division III schools are “increasingly imitating the big-time universities,” Sperber added.

Sperber quoted an economics professor from Cornell University who said “the pattern is very troubling. We’re spending a lot of money on things that in the end aren’t going to make any difference in how well we do as a society.”

He joked that many college athletic boosters have completely lost objectivity, that the climate in Indiana was so fanatical that, given a choice between moving to a less competitive Division III athletic model and closing the English department, he is certain the English department would lose out.

“I love college sports, but I love education more…,” he declared. “And that’s what universities should be about.”

The Pope Center’s Jane Shaw observed that Thierfelder and Sperber represented two separate models or approaches to the issue of how to deal with college athletics. She dubbed Sperber’s the “fight” model, which suggests wholesale de-emphasis of big-time athletics. Thierfelder’s approach she called the “reclaim” model, which favors reaching out to individual coaches and administrators to gradually restore sportsmanship and ethical behavior. She also stated her preference for the attempt to “reclaim” college athletics.

Sperber said that his focus on corruption came from a time when he covered college soccer as a reporter. “College soccer coaches at that point were foreigners or odd people out, in athletic departments…and they started telling me stories about the financial chicanery, the losses and such.”

He said that exposure of the practices of athletic departments ended the long-held perception that “athletic departments make money, which is the way athletic departments want it portrayed. They cook their books to make it look like that. It’s now generally accepted that they lose money.”

“I guess my point is,” he continued, “that if you try to educate people through the best means that you have, that it will move the argument….If you get these ideas out there, people might stop to think about them. At least you force their hand.”

College presidents are loath to deal with sports’ corrupting influences, according to many of the participants. Roger Meiners, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said that “smart university presidents usually punt” when confronted with such problems.

Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard University and a former dean of the school’s undergraduate college, said that many of the problems stem from the fact that “athletic teams have marketing value.” He said that university presidents are “worried that sixteen-year-olds won’t know who they are without a football team.” It is this pressure for recognition in order to attract students that is so “destructive to the integrity of college athletics,” he added.

Lewis brought up the much-ballyhooed “Flutie Effect.” This theory suggests that new-found national prominence on the athletic field often results in a marked increase in applications and average SAT scores for a university. (This is due to the effect Boston College’s winning football team, featuring quarterback Doug Flutie, had on the school’s enrollment.)

Jack Sommers, a geography professor emeritus at Dartmouth University who now teaches at UNC-Charlotte (and a Pope Center board member), recalled one recent possible example of the Flutie Effect—Appalachian State University, whose football team has dominated the Division I-AA football ranks and pulled off a stunning upset of a Divison I powerhouse. It was mentioned that average SAT scores have risen considerably since the school became a national champion.

Yet Sperber cautioned that the Flutie effect is a relatively rare phenomenon, and that a school can easily become known as “Loser U” if its teams fail to produce. He cited Buffalo University (part of the state university system in New York) as a school that invested large sums to improve its athletic standing. Buffalo’s failure to produce winning teams resulted in a large financial burden and a loss of reputation.

Meiners referred to a comment by Shaw that college presidents seem powerless to effect change, and asked “where is the board of trustees?” He said that board members at public universities have little control, but that for trustees at private colleges the situation was different: “They’re the legal guardians and basically the owners of the university. They ought to be taking more of a role.”

Meiners cited Rice University in Texas as a place where trustees insisted on retaining Division I status despite a low enrollment, large monetary losses and an apathetic student body. “If you’re going to get ‘virtue’ installed, it has to come from the top leadership,” he said.

Thierfelder defended his model in part by suggesting that the major corruption problems are limited to a relatively small number of schools, and that the current emphasis on winning on all costs is not insurmountable. He added that he had to replace coaches at Belmont Abbey who did not buy into his insistence on virtue with those who were quickly sold on the idea, and that the school is now winning more league championships than before.

Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that question of the role of sports was merely a “subset” of the more central question, “what is the role of our institution?” She said the time is ripe for such a discussion, since the economic woes are likely to impose fiscal constraints on academia that have been absent since World War II. She said “it’s time for trustees and presidents to come together” on creating new priorities.

Stephanie Crofton, an economics professor at Highpoint University, seconded Neal’s view that the problems with college sports are a symptom of something larger. “Everybody’s too hard on athletics. The whole university needs to clean up.”

Penn State economics professor Dirk Mateer suggested that the emphasis on athletics was at least partly responsible for a new “loss of civility” demonstrated by many students. “I think there’s this common feedback from the way athletic programs work and the way students act at sporting events and what you see in a classroom.” He suggested that “alcohol-fueled enthusiasm” at sporting events goes beyond the bounds of civility, adding that he feels he cannot felt he could not expose his twelve-year-old son to the crowd antics at a Penn State football game.

“Then you see this same sort of culture in the classroom, where if they [students] don’t like something, they feel they can respond against it,” he said, offering the aggressive booing of his students when they participate in class as an example.

Peter Wood, the executive director of the National Association of Scholars, said that this loss of civility is part of a larger trend “embraced by many students” who wish to “get rid of a bunch of stupid niceties.” The definition of virtue, according to Wood, has changed on many campuses to one which conflicts with Thierfelder’s vision. Universities no longer support “a culture in which virtue is to be cultivated in terms of positive aspects of character…those matters of instilling in people motivations for the good.” The new “dominant mode of virtue in academia,” according to Wood, is “liberation from those pressing things which society has visited upon you…You go to college to be liberated from your bourgeois past, your hang-ups, and your complicity in the systems of oppression and race and class.”

He said this new form of virtue is a disconnection from the concurrent attempt to build communities out of “a bunch of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds from around the country” through common identification with and support for the school’s athletic teams.
He suggested that school officials partly justify athletics’ prominence on campus because it is an easy way to build a “community” out of strangers thrown together for a short time.

The community aspect was echoed by Neal, who saw it having positive potential: “The team is the only thing on campus that everybody shares…You don’t otherwise have a common conversation piece.”

Sperber disagreed. He said that research showed that if a school’s teams were winning, there was “a “very definite sense of community. However, for every winner, there’s a loser.” The majority of school teams are either “losers” or mediocre, he said, and for such schools there exists no sense of community, even a sense of “anti-community.” He offered Rice University, which is very academically oriented, and the University of Santa Clara, which dropped football and now focuses on a mix of intramurals and lower-profile sports such as soccer, as schools that share a strong sense of community and identity through other means.

Wood added that changes in academia’s economics and demographics might reduce the emphasis on big-time collegiate sports. Women are starting to dominate the campus in large numbers, and there has yet to be the same visible corruption in women’s sports that there has been in men’s. And as more students seek out alternatives to traditional college educations, such as online programs, athletics could disappear altogether. “The University of Phoenix has no football team” he noted.