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Education in Crisis

Why Higher Education Should Rid Itself of College Athletics

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

The late March ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that NCAA players are legally allowed to form student athletic unions sent shockwaves through the college sports community.  The ruling was celebrated by many liberals and progressives who want to see college athletes (who are unpaid) share more fairly in the money earned by higher ed sports.  At a time when the NCAA is running record surpluses ($71 million in 2012), and sports-oriented “Big Ten” schools are raking in cash for sports events ($315 million total in 2012 alone), college athletes are asking: where’s my cut?

The unionization of student athletes is already being delayed due to opposition from Northwestern University administrators – the school that was party to original NLRB ruling.  A majority of football players at Northwestern will likely vote in favor of unionizing, but the university is busy fighting the ruling via appeal.  Labor representatives speaking for Northwestern football players recently dismissed the school’s legal argument against unionization (citing that college athletes aren’t actually employees) as “a castle built on sand.”  Many seem to think the appeal is unlikely to succeed in the short term, and that a vote on unionization could take place at Northwestern by April 25.

I have no problem with employees forming unions in the pursuit of collective bargaining rights and personal and collective empowerment; in fact I’ve been an enthusiastic union representative at my current teaching institution, and am actively involved in union politics and advocacy in association with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.  However, the hoopla over the NLRB ruling in college sports may ultimately be missing the point.  In an era when college athletes are nearly untouchable in terms of the lack of punishments for legal infractions, and when schools are suffering from massive budget shortfalls, I wonder why colleges and universities are wasting any money on sports-related activities.

Advocates of college sports will claim that these activities are vital for building school pride and that many bring in needed revenues for schools.  The revenues claim is largely false for all but the most successful sporting programs, as these activities usually cost non-elite schools (and even elite ones) significantly more than their monetary turns.  On the school pride point, I would respond with a question: what good is civic pride if the rest of the university or college is collapsing under its own weight?  In the era of declining tenure, the adjunctification of higher ed, massive budget cuts, and skyrocketing tuition rates, spending millions on college athletics seems like an unnecessary indulgence and a misappropriation of valuable funds.

College athletics are not essential (and often antithetical) to the primary missions of higher education: promoting critical thought and the developing of occupational skills.   The groupthink and diversion from studying and on-campus political engagement that often comes with sports boosterism and sports-related partying (“tailgating”) works at the expense of student achievement within the classroom and regarding social activism.  When the college experience is about sports and partying, little time is left for real world social engagement.  Furthermore, on the most instrumental level, these sports having nothing to do with the primary reason students attend college: pursuit of an occupational skill-set.  Students at University of Illinois may enjoy rooting for the “Illini,” but the dismantlement of college sports will have nothing to do with their pursuit of a degree in medicine or engineering.

The largest problem I have with college sports is not instrumental, but pedagogical.   As a teacher at a major state university in Illinois for years, I had many experiences with student athletes.  These experiences were typical, by what I’ve heard from other professors.  Student athletes were almost never the highest achieving in my classes.  Most did just enough to “get by.”  They often registered for the earliest classes possible (8 AM being very common), seldom contributed anything of interest or relevance to class discussions, and received mediocre to poor grades compared to their classmates.  The reason why was obvious – as a student on a partial or full scholarship, they felt obligated (usually pressured by coaches and teammates) to put all their time into their “real” occupation – sports.  They usually walled themselves off in special sports-related student housing, spent much (if not most of their day) on sports-related activities, and did little to develop critical thought by participating in student groups or by excelling in coursework.  In other words, most of them were students in name only.  The problems are much worse at more elite schools.  In those settings, student athletes often do not even attend class, and benefit from an army of tutors hired to assist them in passing their classes.  Professors are often intimidated or pressured into giving them decent enough grades to pass without going on academic probation.  I think most directly of my experiences with an immediate family member and former student athlete (on a sports scholarship).  He excelled at skipping class, only to plead with professors at semester’s end for a passing grade that he didn’t deserve.  As a soccer player, he thought sports was his life, but like the vast majority of college athletes, never made it into professional sports and was forced to enter the job market like other college graduates.  Without having developed much by way of professional skills (he majored in “communication” as a default), his occupational prospects were limited.

The fixation on sports among so many students is quite sad in light of the likely outcome.  Most-all student athletes will never become professionals, but instead will have to fall back on their college degrees to find employment once they graduate.  With little time spent on developing critical thinking and occupational skillsets, these students are in a poor position to succeed once they leave higher ed.  Consider some of the recent statistics: just 1.7 percent of college football players play professionally (and those that do play only average of a couple years professionally playing time, typically earning league minimum salaries that will require them to find a new career once they wash out).  Only 11.6 percent of college baseball athletes enter Major League Baseball; just 1.3 percent of hockey players make it into the NHL; and only 1.2 percent of basketball players enter the NBA.  Rather than skating through on partial or full scholarships, many of students would be far better off earning a vocational degree at a low-cost community college, or using that community college as a spring-board into a more affordable four-year degree, to be paid for with a combination of student loans and (ideally) parental tuition assistance.

College sports are also a tremendous drain on financial resources.  A large majority of college sports programs – 90 percent – lose money for their schools and require additional funds beyond what is earned through ticket, apparel, and other revenues.  The cost of such sports only increased in recent years, by 25 percent on average from 2008 to 2012.  A recent USA Today study found that just 23 of 228 NCAA athletic departments earned enough revenues to pay for their expenses in 2012.  Recent research from the Delta Cost Project found that college sports cost $6 billion annually and that schools on average spent three to six times more on student athletes than non-athletes.   A recent report from the American Association of University Professors highlights that nationally professors’ salaries grew quite meagerly in recent years, while administrative and athletic coach salaries and spending skyrocketed.  In the modern era, sports appear to be more and more important to collegiate priorities, while pedagogy and teaching are receding into the background.  In light of the significant and growing cost of these athletic programs – often millions for a single school per year – and the meager academic returns, such funds would be better spent elsewhere.

The above problems with college sports are bad enough, but the situation worsens when one considers the impunity with which college athletes are allowed to conduct themselves.  The immunity of college athletes and coaches from basic ethical standards was made infamous with the Joe Paterno-Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University.  The incident demonstrated the dangers involved when college athletes and coaches are elevated to the status of semi-divine, and when administrators turn a blind eye to child rape committed on campus and enabled by university employees.  The student rebellion – manifesting itself in the riots following the firing of Joe Paterno – suggested that an entitled, thuggish groupthink mentality has taken hold among many college athletes and fans.

Sadly, this type of groupthink manifests itself in many ways, particularly in the reluctance to prosecute college athletes for alleged sex crimes.  Recent research finds that the problem is most acute in the insulated walls of college sports.  For example, college athletes are 30 percentage points less likely to serve jail or prison time for sex-related crimes than are professional athletes.  Countless stories and studies have emerged in recent years exposing the delayed reaction and punishment of college administrators to sexual abuse allegedly committed by student athletes.  In such situations, male athletes in Basketball and Football programs (among others) are often treated with “kids gloves” under a “boys will be boys” mentality.  Scholarly studies have concluded that this isn’t because they are “better citizens” than non-athlete students.  The reality is the opposite, statistically, athletes are more likely to have engaged in sexual harassment or assault than non-athletes, and more likely to have engaged in non-consensual sex and gang rape.”  This is not to suggest that most athletes engage in such abhorrent behavior (they most likely don’t), but that such behavior is a relatively greater problem in athletic programs than elsewhere on college campuses.  The reasons for this problem, studies suggest, relate to phenomena such as the development of entitlement among male athletes, the hubris that comes along with their “celebrity” status, and the lack of institutional regulation of, or concern with their bad behavior.

I’m not naïve enough to think that the momentum is going to change anytime soon against college sports.  Nonetheless, the dire financial straits in higher ed, and the lack of worthwhile academic returns of college sports mean that eventually the problem of college athletics has to be addressed. I propose the closure of most NCAA-affiliated athletic programs, and the institution of a far less expensive, voluntary intramural system that is typically practiced at the community college level.  This system will bring the cost of higher ed sports more into line with the limited academic returns of such endeavors.  College campuses need to be a place where learning and critical thought are prioritized, rather than a second thought.  If student athletes at “Big 10” schools cannot make the grade without being coddled through the system by extra tutors and grade inflation, then these programs should be dismantled in the name of maintaining academic rigor.  The revenues earned by these top-level sports programs mean they are unlikely to ever be eliminated.  If that is the case, it is time to start asking what contributions these programs are making to the pedagogical and fiscal health of their parent institutions.

The macho, larger-than-life culture associated with college sports, and celebrity athletes and coaches needs to be demolished in favor of a pedagogical system that values student civic engagement, critical thought, and commitment to academic excellence.  College sports often get in the way of these achievements.   Professional sports (especially those posting record profits such as the NFL and MLB) should bear the responsibility of recruiting and preparing prospective professional athletes.  This can be done through private athletic associations, clubs, and recruiting, rather than at the expense of student tuition or taxpayers.  The private gains of these professional sports should no longer be enhanced by public subsidies that will be better spent elsewhere.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com.