On Schools and Sports.
by James Leroy Wilson
April 3, 2003
No government can exist for long without persuading a large number of the people it governs that it is just, i.e., that despite its flaws the people are always better off with it than without. And no form of government has been so successful in advancing the interests of government as democracy.
Democracy is unique among forms of government, for it successfully divides and "conquers" the people, convincing most people, white or black, rich or poor, Christian or Jew, that legislation passed by majority will should be able to shape the best of human virtues and provide for all human needs.
Hence what pure logic suggests could have and would have been provided by merchants, manufacturers, insurance companies, and churches, that is, by the free market: money, lighthouses, roads, security forces, hospitals, and judicial arbitrators - are now considered "public" goods that belong to "the people," that is, the democracy. The public and the social are variations of the same concept: that the individual in a democracy is, and ought to be, subordinate to the General Will of other individuals.
Education is the key to this, and indeed, it is public - government - education which has shaped American culture most profoundly. More tellingly, it is the extra-curricular activities of public schools and universities that have a pervasive effect on the culture: the Prom, Homecoming, small-town 4th of July parades with the high school band, the Heisman Trophy, the Final Four. No matter the quality of what is taught in the classroom, these venerable traditions continue, year after year.
Certainly, Catholic and other private schools have become heavily involved in many of these activities. The first inter-collegiate "football" game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 (really a brawl with a soccer game as a pretext) is what could be called a "public-private partnership," New Jersey's state university vs. it's leading private one. The NCAA is itself such a partnership, in which state-tax supported and privately-owned colleges (although they are all, ultimately, supported by federal taxes), decide on rules, regulations, and contracts for mutual economic advantage and the appearance of integrity. And these are also subject to more regulations from the federal government.
But this is precisely where the system breaks down. While the NCAA basketball tournament is, by its very nature of a three-week, 64-team, single-elimination process , one of the most exciting and interesting events in sports, it is also one of the most distracting, and often disheartening and bitter, events on a college campus. Ask St. Bonaventure, who's players quit on the season with two games left leading to the firing of the President, or Georgia, famous for not making the tournament at all this year because of rules violations. Ask Minnesota Gopher fans of the glorious Clem Haskins years, or Alabama about its tumultuous recent seasons filled with personal scandal, NCAA scandal, and a coach's betrayal. See how sensitive Nebraska fans get when you bring up the name "Lawrence Philips."
The public has been raised to love their schools and their teams, and therefore stay loyal to them through embarrassing behavior by players, coaches, and administrators. Not to mention heart-breaking losses, and the difficulty of new coaches to maintain a predecessor's dynasty. And sports have been a driving force behind the American university becoming a place for parties and the purchase of degrees, not learning. The controversy, rancor, and money generated by essentially trivial pursuits causes one to wonder whether any of it is worth the trouble.
But don't sports - particularly team sports - build character? The evidence is shaky at best. And even if so, the character built is a democratic one: subordination of one's own will to the General Will of the team, and blind obedience to Authority (the coaches). It could also be argued these sports can unite communities and states together as they cheer for the teams of the schools they are forced to support through taxes. It works: the government-run institution ingratiates itself to the community with the pomp, glamour, and excitement of sports and the surrounding festivities -replacing the events that "backward" civilizations would have for religious holidays and celebrations.
But as we approach Final Four weekend, it is noted that the best amateur basketball player in the world somehow missed playing in the tournament at all. He was no where to be seen. Well, actually, he was in Chicago, playing a high school national all-star game before a packed United Center. His name is Lebron James, now a high school senior, who might have been
selected the #1 pick in the NBA draft even last year as a 17 year-old junior, had he been eligible.
Because the American educational establishment has monopolized amateur basketball (and football) and refuses to even compensate the very athletes it make profits from, young Mr. James had no choice last year but to return to his high school team, from which he obviously could not have improved as much as he could have playing in a professional developmental league for top major-league prospects. Canada's first-tier junior hockey leagues are the top rung for players, generally 16 to 20 years of age, who, it appears, have pro potential. A system like that in the United States for basketball would attract the top young talent who are not ready for the NBA but at least ready to play against each other. Instead, their learning curve begins to diminish as they, more often than not, play with and against highly inferior players in our high schools and universities.
Not only has the American university's purpose been distorted, but its quality, and often morale, has suffered due to its stubborn love affair with its athletic department. And the sports have paid a price as well, for instead of a vibrant minor league system developing players for football and basketball, top prospects are forced to jump straight from the NCAA to the NBA or NFL.
But since democracy and its institutions have completely captivated - monopolized - our minds and hearts, we'd prefer not to think about such waste and cheer the team on.
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