Weeks 11-12-13: Sports and Society I, II, III
Sports, and especially college sports, reflect the society that finds them so important. Through college sports, Americans often symbolize a wide range of values and virtues, expectations and frustrations. Sports provides an outlet for aggression, train leaders, build character, display the American spirit, offer an opportunity to promote religion, enhance an essential commitment to competition, and glorify the American obsession with winning.
Because intercollegiate athletics means all these things to someone at some time, it carries a heavy cultural burden and reflects many things about America. The media play a large and continuing role in the development of the sports mystique and the reinforcement of the values that adhere to sports. Yet, whatever the other values and symbols, sports are about winning, whether in college sports or the professional variety. Although the other values articulated in sports rhetoric soften the clarity of this message of winning by introducing a variety of sub-themes involving the personal best, the old college try, the moral victory, no observer of college sports has any doubt that the activity is about winning. As early as the Savage et al., report in 1929, the relationship between the media and the overemphasis on sports in college seemed clear as we can see in Howard J. Savage, et al., "The Press and College Athletics," American College Athletics (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1929).
I: The Culture of Winning and the Amateur Athlete
The culture of winning reflects a set of American values complicated in the case of intercollegiate sports by the cult of amateurism. In professional sports, winning is the absolute clear objective, and the players, teams, and fans all know that they participate in a professional exercise where the owners of the team pay the players to win, and the price of the players reflects their contribution to winning.
In college sports, however, the cult of amateurism and the dual relationship of amateur competitive athlete and college student complicates this fundamental simplicity of sports. College sports are defined as amateur contests whose players come from a restricted subset of the population of athletically talented individuals who we require to be regular students seeking academic degrees. This is the idealized premise of college sports.
If the players were drawn at random from among American college students and therefore were truly amateur, the quality of the athletic performance would not be as good as it could be. Beginning very early in the twentieth century, colleges, in the endless pursuit of winning, identified a select pool of more or less college age individuals with special athletic skills and then recruited student-athletes from this pool to complete their teams. The best college teams recruited these specially selected students and financed them for their athletic abilities. While one might hope these students would have the capability and interest in achieving a reasonable level of academic accomplishment, the primary criteria for selecting student-athletes measured athletic not academic ability. This constructed pool of college student-athletes constitute a special category of student, and the definition of amateur became a term of art, designed to distinguish between the paid athlete in the professional leagues and the specially selected amateur college student-athlete.
The principal difference between professional and student athlete involves the level and type of compensation and the limit on the length of an athletic career. An amateur college athlete came to be defined as an individual of college age, paid apprenticeship level compensation to compete for up to a maximum fixed time on behalf of the institution. One of the benefits provided the amateur student-athlete, in lieu of additional compensation, is the opportunity to acquire a college education. Another is the opportunity to enhance student-athlete sports skills and showcase them to a wider public. This provides an opportunity to enhance a student-athlete's value in the commerical athletic marketplace after leaving college.
The definition of amateurism and the concept of the student-athlete are core distinguishing features of college sports. Although the development and enforcement of rules related to eligibility and the definition of amateur are fascinating and complex, the intensity of this conversation requires some comment.
College sports are entertainment products that colleges and universities provide to local and national audiences. Clear brand differentiation is an essential component of maintaining market share for these products. Professional sports competitions, in almost all cases, are better entertainment in the sense that the athletes are of consistently higher quality with more experience, and the presentation of the contests usually demonstrates higher production and entertainment values. College sports nonetheless maintains its popularity by creating a special and quite specific product that touches a number of core American values that allows it to compete for audience against the more explicit and higher quality professional model.
Americans value the collegiate experience and college has become the clearest ritual of youth entrance into middle-class adulthood and the most recognized process for transition into a wide range of professional occupations. Many people believe that college is a method for creating a leadership class and for supporting national aspirations for international leadership. Part of the tradition of organized youth sports, captured in the American collegiate variety, sees the experience as teaching values and practices that contribute to leadership in war and industry. We send young men to play football to learn strategy, teamwork, and the management of controlled violence within specific rule-bound contexts. These games, with their competition, their struggle for championships, and their extreme physical requirements, teach strength of character, the value of hard work and sacrifice, the recognition that individual achievement may need to be subordinated to the good of the group, and similar values of group behavior (at least for team sports).
However, within these notions lies the additional understanding that we teach these values to an endless succession of student classes, new every four years, creating a never ending sequence of sports-improved individuals to leave college and go on to be captains of industry, finance, professions, and politics. This requires that we see the players, the athletes, as transitional in their collegiate roles. We cannot have permanent college players. They need to be viewed as amateur, at least insofar as their collegiate athletic performance is concerned, so we can put the players in the same category as the regular students, all in a stage of learning and preparing for whatever life will bring after college.
If the audiences for college sports see the athletes as paid performers, the distinction between the college game and the professional game fades, and college ball looks like minor league ball. But if the audiences see the college game as something distinct, an amateur contest among teams formed of students resident at each college, competing for the glory of their Alma Mater, and without immediate financial benefit from winning and losing, then we have a product we can differentiate from the professional game. An interesting perspective on the relationship between winning the championship and the role of the student-athlete see Allen St. John, "The BMOC Strategy. The Secret to Winning the NCAA Championship: Pin Your Hopes on the Star," The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2005 and Stefan Fatsis, "Where Are They Now? Their Tournament Is Over," The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2005. The universities themselves highlight this frame through their own advertising during sports contests as we can see in Michael S. Harris, "Message in a Bottle: University Advertising During Bowl Games," Innovation in Higher Education (2009).
Within this frame, we can understand better the tremendous effort to define the exact definition of amateur status on one side and the exact characteristics of student status on the other for all individuals who play sports for a collegiate team. At its simplest definition, an amateur is someone who plays the sport for the experience, for the enjoyment, and for the satisfaction of the game, and receives no direct compensation for their effort and skill. While in theory this is clear, in practice, the definition requires almost infinite specification.
The essential feature of amateur status for college sports is that the student who plays the game cannot receive any direct payment for athletic activity related to the sport other than regular financial aid provided by the institution on basis that does not compensate the student beyond the cost of attending college and the direct costs of particpating in the sport. If a student is paid beyond this limit to play, say in a summer league, then the student is a professional, and loses amateur status. Even if the student receives a fee for appearing at an event (not competing but just appearing), then the student becomes a professional receiving compensation based on athletic talent and performance. This is a simplified and partial description of the status of student amateur athlete.
The other critical part defines the status of student. Student means that the individual is enrolled in the university as a regular student and conforms to the academic rules of the institution as would any student. When we combine student-athlete, we have the core concept around which the institutions and their governing organizations have built their rules over many years of careful and continuing calibration.
The extensive sections in the NCAA Division I Manual, 2010-2011, the NCAA Division II Manual, 2010-2011, and the NCAA Division III Manual, 2010-2011 describing amateurism characteristics and rules and academic eligibility demonstrate how difficult and important these items are. In the NCAA Division I Manual, 2010-2011, these two principles are stated simply, although the rules that follow indicate how challenging it is to implement the principles in practice.
2.9 THE PRINCIPLE OF AMATEURISM Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.
2.5 THE PRINCIPLE OF SOUND ACADEMIC STANDARDS Intercollegiate athletics programs shall be maintained as a vital component of the educational program, and student-athletes shall be an integral part of the student body. The admission, academic standing and academic progress of student-athletes shall be consistent with the policies and standards adopted by the institution for the student body in general.
The challenge of defending amateurism within an essentially commercial entertainment product like college sports prompts periodic efforts to revisit the definition of "amateur" as illustrated in Welch Suggs, "The NCAA Debates the Meaning of Amateurism," The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 11, 2000. One manifestation of this concern constantly occupies the NCAA as it protects its amateur definition, Pay-for-Play. This notion proposes that student-athletes, since they are performing in what looks like a commercial entertainment product, should be paid a salary for their work. Such a notion is a direct assault on one of the core values of college sports and not surprisingly, earns a strong response in "Pay for Play Resurfaces, But NCAA Still Opposed," The NCAA News, March 17, 2003 and reappears as a major topic later in Allen Sack. "Ralph Nader and 'Pay for Play'," Inside HigherEd, April 15, 2011. .
II: Colleges and Sports
Although some hoped that small liberal arts colleges could escape the need to focus on winning and recruiting athletic talent, as expressed in George A. Drake, "Small-College Sports, Big-Time Athletics, and the Yawning Chasm Between the Two," The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18, 1987, recent experience has demonstrated that elitism provides no safe harbor from the competitive American commitment to winning. The Chronicle highlighted one region's small college performance in Welch Suggs, "Report Documents Poor Academic Performance of Athletes at New England Liberal-Arts Colleges," The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 17, 2001, demonstrating that the practice of recruiting underprepared student-athletes and the overemphasis on winning extends down from big time Division I institution into Division III schools. The NCAA recently implemented a new system to measure academic progress. A comment on that system appears in Lombardi, "Reality Check, Preserving the Audience: The NCAA and the APR," Inside HigherEd.
Perhaps the most extensive treatment of elite colleges and sports appears in two important books, James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton 2001) and William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton, 2005). Both of these books show clearly that elite colleges and universities, public and private, large and small, give preferential treatment to talented athletes in admissions, but that these athletes in general have less successful college careers. They also demonstrate that while big-time football programs at large public universities generate large amounts of publicity and visibility, the impact on the student body of these athletic programs is not as great as the impact of competitive athletics at small colleges where the competition is intense and the number of students is much smaller. A useful introduction to the Mellon project related to these books is in Welch Suggs, "The Role of Sports in Small-College Life. Mellon Foundation Project Encourages Colleges to 'Integrate' Athletes with Other Students," The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 8, 2005.
Some commentators, however, believe that the effort to reconcile competitive sports with academic value is not only impossible but destructive of the institutions. Some call for separating sports from college, "The Education-Athletics Nonsense: A Proposal for Severing the Connection between Higher Education and Competitive Sports," Journal of Higher Education (34:9, 1963). Others think that it is impossible for academic values to compete against the power of competitive sports, Allen L. Sack, "Big-Time Athletics vs. Academic Values: It's a Rout," The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2001. Many worry that, whatever the rules, the impact of the intense competition in college sports on individual student-athletes is surely damaging, Peter Monaghan, "Sociologists' Look at Big-Time Basketball Depicts a World in Which Players' Academic Goals Are Subverted," The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6, 1991. Another perspective on the impact of sports on individuals is in James L.W. Houle, Britton W. Brewer, and Annette S. Kluck. "Developmental Trends in Athletic Identity: A Two-Part Retrospective Study," Journal of Sport Behavior, 33:2, 2010).
Much attention also focuses on the preparation of potential collegiate student-athletes in high school and prep school. See for example, Robert E. McCormick and Maurice Tinsley, "Athletics versus Academics? Evidence from SAT Scores," The Journal of Political Economy (95:5, 1987) and Stefan Fatsis, "Way Station: Prep schools Increasingly Prepare Players for Division I Competition. But Do They Prepare Them for Life Beyond the Game?" The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2005.
The issue of maintaining the academic integrity of college sports is of central concern to the success of the enterprise, and the first round of NCAA certification included a specific focus on this topic as we can see in the reports from Princeton and Florida, "Academic Integrity" (Princeton University: NCAA Self-Study, Certification 1997-98) and "Academic Integrity" (University of Florida: NCAA Self-Study, Certification 1998).
III: Values, Fairness, and Culture
Within the college sports franchise itself, several other values require careful management. Our 1929 reference point has a very useful chapter on values in Howard J. Savage, et al., "Values in American College Athletics," American College Athletics (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1929). For a more recent iteration of the arguments about sports and values see John R. Tunis, "Education and Ethics: The Effect of Organized Sports on the Moral Tone of the Nation," Journal of Higher Education (32:5, 1961) and Lisa E. Wolf-Wendel, J. Douglas Toma, and Christopher C. Morphew, "There's No 'I' in 'Team': Lessons from Athletics on Community Building," The Review of Higher Education (24, 2001).
Fairness is a core value. Fairness has a special meaning in college sports. The ideal of college sports imagines that each college is more or less like every other college, and that the athletic teams pulled from the student body compete on about the same basis no matter what college they attend. In reality, of course, this is not so. Some colleges or universities are small, some are large; some rich, some poor; and not all colleges play all sports. Nonetheless, the NCAA, in managing the college sports franchise, regulates the operation of sports to try and ensure that when the teams meet on the field they arrive on an equal basis and no team has a special competitive advantage over another. This "leveling the playing field" in sports jargon, requires a host of regulations, developed over many years. Everything that might give any individual team or institution an advantage unrelated to the actual competition on the field comes under regulation. Because sports is about wining, every team and coach seeks an advantage that will improve their chances. As the NCAA and the conferences regulate one advantage, the coaches figure out another advantage, and then that gets regulated. When institutions stray too far from the rules that define fairness, they run afoul of the NCAA's regulations, suffer an investigation with significant penalties, and must then find a way to bring their programs back into compliance. See for one example of that recovery process in Lombardi. A Model for Intercollegiate Athletics (original of following versions) ["Sports Medicine", The Journal of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges, (34:1,1992] and ["Control, Accountability Are Gator Achievements," The NCAA News (28:32, 1991)].
Some of the advantages relate to recruiting. Whatever else is important, recruiting the best talent is the most important element in securing a winning season. As a result, coaches, boosters, friends, university administrators, and anyone else with an interest in sports tries to help their teams recruit the best talent. Large issues, such as bribing high school students and their families to choose one college over another, and small issues, such as how many times a coach can call a prospective player, are strictly regulated. The Division I manual listed above has many pages defining the permissible behaviors in recruiting a student-athlete.
Additional issues involve the specification of what a college or university can do on behalf of its student-athletes in terms of financial aid or other benefits. If one institution does more than another it creates a competitive advantage. Each sport has detailed rules about practice times and places, number of competitions, numbers and types of coaches, and similar characteristics of the organization and structure of each sport. If one college has three coaches and another has only two, a competitive disadvantage appears. If one college makes its players practice three times a day and another only twice, a competitive advantage may appear. And so it goes. Again, the 2010-2011 NCAA Division I Manual offers full detail on all these issues. Within the manual we can look at the sections on Financial Aid, or Awards, Benefits and Expenses for Enrolled Student-Athletes for rules affect individual students. For the various sports regulations, see the section of the manual on Playing and Practice Seasons, that are specific and detailed.
Originally, all colleges and universities competed against each other in intercollegiate athletics, regardless of the type and size of institution. But by 1973 the complexity of the sports and the dramatic expansion of higher education threatened the notion of the "level playing field." The difference between an Amherst College and The Ohio State University proved too great to imagine them both in the same competitive context, so the NCAA created three divisions and then later divided the top Division I into separate categories for football only (I-A, I-AA). The requirements for each division, while complex, serve to define an important element of the college sports environment: The Program.
While professional sports are about individuals and about competitions among many teams playing the same sport, college sports is about the athletic program defined as a specific collection of men's and now women's sports. Part of the level playing field is the notion that because college sports are about students, intercollegiate sports should represent an athletic program that serves many students with different sports interests. However, if one college spends all its money on football and another divides its money and supports football, basketball, soccer, and volleyball, the institution with a multi-sport program is at a disadvantage relative to the institution with a single sport program. For this reason the NCAA franchise specifies divisions that serve to categorize institutions by the investment required to compete. This involves not only the number of sports needed to maintain division status but also rules about minimum size of stadiums, minimum number of sports, and similar characteristics. The idea, of course, is that all programs within a particular division classification will be more or less equivalent. Colleges and universities, unlike professional sports, present themselves as supporting a sports program for their students' participation rather than fielding a competitive team in a single sport. A History of the NCAA's first century appears on its website and the requirements for Division I, I-A, and I-AA membership appear in the 2010-2011 NCAA Division I Manual under BYLAW, ARTICLE 20: Division Membership. (Note that the Division I-A football subdivision is now called the Bowl Subdivision and the Division I-AA football subdivision is called the Championship Subdivision to reflect the fact that Division I-A teams compete in post season bowl games while Division I-AA teams compete in an NCAA managed football championship.)
Other things can influence the image and marketability of college sports such as drug or alcohol abuse and gambling. The NCAA, to protect the commercial viability of their franchise, legislated a wide range of rules, regulations, and remedies that guide colleges and universities in drug testing, alcohol and tobacco education, and the prevention of gambling. Drug use, of course, is not only dangerous for individual student-athletes but can create a significant competitive advantage for those players who use certain performance enhancing substances, particularly steroids (see NCAA Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student Athletes, 2005).
Gambling, however, is a truly franchise destroying activity, for the mere suspicion that a player, coach, or team may not compete at the highest level because of a gambling obligation takes all the joy and enthusiasm from the spectator's appreciation of the game. Gambling is particularly difficult to control since the amount of gambling on college sports is high, and if we include illegal betting, Internet off-shore gambling, and similar activities, the amount wagered on high profile college games is very high. Insulating coaches, players, and others involved in the athletic enterprise from gambling is difficult, but the major scandals involving college sports gambling and fixed games so threaten the enterprise when they happen that most people are prepared to tolerate very stringent regulations. The classic cautionary tale involves the college basketball gambling scandal documented in Albert J. Figone, "Gambling and College Basketball: The Scandal of 1951," Journal of Sport History (16, 1989), but more recent reporting indicates the pervasive nature of wagering in college sports as revealed in this series by Tim Layden, "Bettor education," Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1995, "Book Smart," Sports Illustrated, April 10, 1995, "YoU Bet Your Life," Sports Illustrated April. 17 1995. An article from 2004 demonstrates that the problem is never far from the surface of college sports, Jennifer Jacobson, "Sports Gambling by Athletes Is a Widespread Problem, NCAA Study Finds," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2004.
Because students often bet on college and professional games and some students serve as bookmakers, the gambling culture surrounds the student-athletes and their programs, see Steven L. Oster and Terry J. Knapp, "Sports Betting By College Students: Who Bets And How Often?" College Student Journal (32:2, 1998). Even referees sometimes fall victim to the gambling compulsion as reported in Welch Suggs, "U. of Michigan Study Documents Gambling Among College Referees," The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2000. For the NCAA, issues of gambling and drugs fall under the category of ethical behavior and the operating bylaw for these issues appear in the 2010-2011 NCAA Division I Manual under "BYLAW, ARTICLE 10: Ethical Conduct".
College sports is also a central element in American culture, captured alongside the professional enthusiasm for baseball and football and directly connected to a parallel high school sports commitment. Indeed, whether in fictional representations of small-town America such as Hoosiers or the actual circumstances described in Jere Longman, "A Town Where Football Is the Glue and the Hope," New York Times, November 23, 2001 or Welch Suggs, "In Memphis, Top Athletes Leave Town Fast," The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 31, 2001, sports is everywhere. Sometimes popular culture allows us to see the changing values and understand the powerful drivers, good and bad, of the American sports culture. For an early perspective on the role of sports as a surrogate for violent battle see David Starr Jordan, "Football: Battle or Sport?" The Pacific Monthly, March 1908 and Steven W. Pope, "An Army of Athletes: Playing Fields, Battlefields, and the American Military Sporting Experience, 1890-1920," The Journal of Military History, (59, 1995). Of course sports also provides a venue for connecting controversial issues as is seen in Peter Kaufman and Eli A. Wolff. "Playing and Protesting: Sport as a Vehicle for Social Change," Journal of Sport and Social Issues (2010).
Movies and television, simplify and clarify as they distort, and a careful viewing of a sequence of films and shows offers some clues to the shifting nature of the American love affair with college sports. Everyone has their favorite sports movies, and a number appear in our reading list. Many of these films, especially those focused on high school and college sports, highlight the cultural values that we project onto these games and that these games reflect back to us. Even in 1927, the movie COLLEGE showed sports as a central concern for a high school and then college student who discovered that popularity depended on his willingness to embrace the sports culture.
KNUTE ROCKNE - ALL AMERICAN (1940) is the classic football movie that articulates all the core beliefs and values that American college football promotes. As it glorifies the Notre Dame legend, it prepares us for another popular movie over fifty years later in RUDY (1993), a movie that demonstrates the distorting influence a sports obsession can have on individuals and families, and at the same time highlights the importance of winning over other values. In contrast to these feel-good stories, THE PROGRAM (1993) is a not very good and in many ways cynical movie that attempts to provide a perspective on some of the negative aspects of college football culture.
Scandal and corruption always serve as good themes for movies, and two basketball movies about 40 years apart take on basketball corruption. In THE BASKETBALL FIX (1951), gambling and its corrosive impact on both players and the game is the focus while in BLUE CHIPS (1994) recruiting corruption provides the context for a morality tale about integrity and winning.
Many sports movies are uplifting tales set in small town America. HOOSIERS (1986) is a classic small town high school basketball movie that celebrates all the values of intense, community identified, sports. VARSITY BLUES (1999) offers a high school football analog to Hoosiers, and REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000), shows how an intense focus on winning high school football can overcome powerful social and cultural divisions within a small town. Of course not all basketball movies are about small rural towns, and HOOP DREAMS (1994) offers a much acclaimed perspective on the aspirations of talented inner city Chicago players. Among recent sports films of significance are the dramatized version of a real-life football player from the inner city in THE BLIND SIDE (2009) or the movie and subsequent television series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (Movie 2004, TV series 2006-2010) A discussion of the male dominated nature of most sports movies is in Dayna B. Daniels, "You Throw Like a Girl: Sport and Misogyny on the Silver Screen," Film & History, (35:1, 2005). Of particular value is the artice by Andrew C. Miller, "The American Dream Goes to College: The Cinematic Student Athletes of College Football," The Journal of Popular Culture (43:6, 2010).
Of course sports themes also appear elsewhere as topics in American culture as evidenced in Tracy J. R. Collins, "Reflections on Teaching Sports Literature in the Academy," Pedagogy, 2003 or Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "Epiphany of Form: On the Beauty of Team Sports," New Literary History, (30, 1999). Or see the discussion of college bands in Jack Stripling, "Bands Gone Wild," Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 7, 2008. The ritual of television productions of football games is one of the remarkable features of the entertainment focus of American sports. Although focused on the professional game, the low percentage of TV time devoted to actual play on a televised football game is highlighted in David Biderman, "11 Minutes of Action," Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2010 and most likely would be much the same for a televised college bowl game.