What are college sports really for?
This past week the firing of Mike Rice, Rutgers University men's basketball coach, brought new attention to a long-term question: what's going on with college sports? And what does it mean to be a college athlete?
Rice was fired after a video showed him calling his players derogatory names, physically shoving them, and generally being abusive. When the video was first revealed to top university officials late last year, they fined Rice $50,000 and sent him to anger management classes. It was only after the video became public, and an uproar ensued across the nation, did officials fire him. Tim Pernetti, the athletic director, also was sent packing.
Harassing coaches have long been around and many of us have experienced them. I remember when one of my basketball coaches threw a chair at me during practice because I missed the cut-off pass on our full-court press. He would often grab my teammates by the hair and drag them around. Humiliating one of us was never far off. Is that what we want kids and young adults to experience and be taught?
Grinnell College recently beat Faith Baptist in basketball by the score of 179-104. Jack Taylor scored a whopping 138 points -- and his coach played him and many of the starters for virtually the entire game, long after the rout was on. Grinnell officials saw nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, they touted the rout as confirmation of their disciplined data-driven coaching approach. Funny, Grinnell itself was founded on a social mission and celebrates educating students to serve the common good.
There's been much written about how college athletics have turned into a business, with ultra high-paid coaches acting without accountability, the building of expansive and expensive stadiums and athletic facilities, and too little oversight by college administrators responsible for what happens on their campuses. Penn State is just one of the most egregious cases.
The NCAA, under mounting pressure, recently began running slick (and beautiful) television ads that highlight college athletes and point out how they go on to great careers and fulfilling lives. I don't doubt any of that.
But what does trouble me is the contamination of college sports, where "winning at any cost" dominates. In this system, athletes can be seen as "disposable assets." And they're often treated as if they are fully-developed adults. The fact is that however good these young men and women are in their sport, they are still young men and women. They are intended to be student-athletes.
At the core of any notion of a student-athlete must be character building. Isn't that one of the primary reasons colleges and universities exist? One of the most persuasive cases for this was made by Kirk Cousins, the former star quarterback at Michigan State University, who spoke eloquently at a Big Ten luncheon about how he sees himself and other student-athletes (Cousins is now the back-up quarterback for the Washington Redskins). Take a moment to listen to what he has to say:
Now, anyone who thinks that I have had my head buried in the sand and haven't realized that college sports has changed over the years -- I know it has changed. But I also know that in recent times there has been enough scandals and upheavals in college sports to build an awareness, perhaps even public will, for change. And all this coincides with a larger trend in America -- the desire to get back to basics: to re-commit ourselves to cherished values of compassion, openness and humility, and concern for the common good.
What better place to teach and express such values than with student-athletes.