“It Is Time for the Country to Grow Up”: On Penn State & Sports Culture

Howard Bryant of ESPN calls out American sports culture in the context of the recent Penn State football sanctions:

Penn State lost its fun and games, its diversion. It lost a fictionalized version of itself and its fallen, iconic coach. It lost numbers in a record book and money from its wallet. The sanctions against the football program were, in effect, significant only through one insular, unimportant lens: the overemphasis on football and big-time sports in general that created an environment for such a colossal mess to occur in the first place.

If anything of worth is to emerge, the Saturday afternoon tailgate, the bragging rights and the beer will be replaced by something far more valuable: responsibility. It is time for Penn State to grow up. It is also time for the rest of the country, those blinded by sports and money and power who think they can be smug because they didn’t attend or care about Penn State, to grow up as well. College is about building a foundation for seeing the world in its curious complex dimensions, and now the university community through the worst kind of scandal just received a heavy dose of reality. No one with a soul wanted it to be this way, but the students and the campus now have some necessary grit to accompany their stardust.

That’s a strong word.  Readers of this blog know that I really enjoy sports and consider them a common grace gift of God.  Furthermore, PSU is a school I’m familiar with, having had very close friends with ties to it.

But there’s a word we need to hear in Bryant’s piece.  You don’t need to be some sort of killjoy, sports-hating, unmasculine person to see that sports culture–clearly glimpsed in its worst, utterly-horrifying-to-the-point-of shock iteration in the Jerry Sandusky scandal–is, well, out of control in American society.  That’s true as well for American college and university culture.  I really wonder if we’ve reached a point where sports at many bigger schools are usurping the academic mission of the institution.  (I’ve written about an overemphasis on sports before, most publicly in the Kevin DeYoung-edited volume Don’t Call it a Comeback.)

Many of us sports fans are accustomed to hearing this kind of argument–and to dismissing it immediately.  Of course we need big-time sports.  How else are we going to raise funds for our schools?  Where else will we go as a cross-campus rallying point?  How could alumni possibly be connected to the school without major athletic events to attend?  Yeah, there’s some lack of balance nowadays, when coaches get paid more than university presidents, but isn’t the world a messed-up place in the biblical worldview?

I hear all of these objections, and there’s something to consider in each of them.  I’m not anti-sports on college campuses.  I’m all for them.  I went to a NCAA Division Three school in New England and really enjoyed the basketball and hockey games.  They do promote a “university culture,” and they’re fun.  But the good thing about sports at Bowdoin College and NCAA D3 in general is that sports are held in check.  They don’t dominate the life of the institution (at least, not yet).  There were no (official) athletic scholarships, so the athletes really were students first, not essentially hired professionals forced to limit earnings to the price of a scholarship.

My college was academically oriented (as most are, thankfully), and yet it had absolutely zero trouble raising a massive endowment (one billion dollars).  Neither have many other schools.  Ivy League institutions like Harvard (30 billion), Princeton (17 billion), and Yale (17 billion) aren’t having much trouble in this front despite their focus on academics, not sports.  Sure, those are Ivy League schools, but the same is true of countless lesser-known schools.  The point: you don’t need big-time athletic programs to raise money for the school.

I really wonder about divorcing major sports from American universities.  British schools, for example, know no such uneasy marriage.  If you are going into a career in soccer, you enter the club system and pursue an education independently or through a sports academy.  American tennis works in much this way.  I don’t mean that even this system is perfect, of course.  But it seems to me a better model than our current one, in which–let’s be honest–sports are displacing academics as the core of college life.

Here’s a snatch from a recent hard-hitting article in the New York Times that illustrates the point:

Glen R. Waddell, associate professor of economics at the University of Oregon, wanted to know how much. In a study published last month as part of the National Bureau of Education Research working paper series, Oregon researchers compared student grades with the performance of the Fighting Ducks, winner of this year’s Rose Bowl and a crowd pleaser in their Nike uniforms in crazy color combinations and mirrored helmets.

“Here is evidence that suggests that when your football team does well, grades suffer,” said Dr. Waddell, who compared transcripts of over 29,700 students from 1999 to 2007 against Oregon’s win-loss record. For every three games won, grade-point average for men dropped 0.02, widening the G.P.A. gender gap by 9 percent. Women’s grades didn’t suffer. In a separate survey of 183 students, the success of the Ducks also seemed to cause slacking off: students reported studying less (24 percent of men, 9 percent of women), consuming more alcohol (28 percent, 20 percent) and partying more (47 percent, 28 percent).

This is disturbing stuff.  I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s depiction of whole packs of male college students glued to sports programming in the brilliant I Am Charlotte Simmons.  These boys–and sports are really the primary province of kids, right?–took sports incredibly seriously, and cared little about their studies.  I think we’re seeing the spread of this trend on a national level, and that does not bode well for our society, for our schools, and especially for young men (and the young women they fail to win).

So what does all this mean?  I think it means as Christians that we push in our little corners of life for sports to occupy an appropriately chaste place in public life.  We enjoy them, but we enjoy them in moderation (a HUGE challenge today, especially for men).  Perhaps we lend our voice to the side of the discussion that urges for the full professionalization of major sports.  It’s not really fair, after all, that universities profit massively from student-athletes.  I think our society might be healthier be shifting football, basketball, and other major sports away from the university model and moving them toward the professional model.  Let’s reclaim the idea of the college and university (and high school!) as an academic entity first.

It also means that we continue to take the life of the mind seriously, for our sake, the sake of the church, the sake of American culture, and most importantly, the glory of Christ, the one who is king over all things, including our sports and our minds.

(Image: Patrick Smith/Getty)

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1 Comment

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One response to ““It Is Time for the Country to Grow Up”: On Penn State & Sports Culture

  1. Andy Orlovsky

    People keep forgetting that Sandusky was not just a bored retired football coach. He was the founder of one of the largest children’s charities in PA if not the nation. That’s the reason he was protected was that the PSU administration. They did not want to good publicity he brought the school through his charity work to go up in smoke. One of the reasons Sandusky was so beloved at PSU (and therefore got away with his horrid deeds for so long) was because he seemingly gave up a change to be head football coach so he can spend more time helping disadvantaged kids. I’m not denying some people do take sports culture too seriously, but you simply can’t blame the administrative protection of Sandusky on “wanting to win a few more football games”. Jerry Sandusky was seemingly the poster child of “winning isn’t everything” and “there are things more important than football”.

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