Sport, Education and Hypocrisy

[Joyce Duncan forwarded the following post from the Popular Culture list; its author is Samuel Smith. --Kevin Brooks]

Date: Thu, 25 Jul 1996
Subject: Sport, Education and Hypocrisy

With a thrilling NBA Final just behind us and one of the most disturbing NBA drafts in memory looming before us, I've been pondering a few ponderables about Sport and Education -- or more to the point, Sport VERSUS Education -- and how we can compare the basketball system with other pro sports leagues in our culture. I'd be interested to hear what some of my colleagues here might have to say.

Many commentators, myself included, have been lamenting the fact that an increasing number of college basketball players are leaving school early to enter the NBA draft. Many, including Michael Jordan himself (left UNC after Junior year) have done quite well for themselves. But in the ranks of pro hoop, there's a huge difference between a 21 year-old and a 19 year-old. Physically, many kids need that extra year to develop bodies that can withstand an 82-game grind, and emotionally, well, remember how WE were at 19? If you'd given me a $3 million/year salary I'd probably be dead by now.

And there are plenty of horror stories to back this assertion. The cases of Pearl Washington, Skip Wise, and Chris Washburn are three which leap immediately to mind.

Now the question isn't about leaving college early, though. Kevin Garnett's success this year (he entered the draft directly out of high school last year) has apparently prompted more kids to try the same thing, and there at least two such cases in the upcoming draft pool.

This is an awful thing, right? Kids need a college degree, the seasoning and maturity that goes with developing the intellect, etc. And so we're all screaming to high heaven about what is happening.

But then I think about other sports, namely baseball and hockey. Baseball has been signing kids out of high school for decades, plugging them into their farm systems beginning at age 18. Some make it, and some don't. The ones who don't might wash out in their 20s and you can't really save for a college education on a minor league salary. Hockey drafts out of the Juniors, and the setup there is much the same.

I don't think many of us can really use the phrase "scholar-athlete" with a straight face anymore, so it's not like we really kid ourselves about why Stephon Marbury enrolled at Georgia Tech. But there's another layer of hypocrisy here, and I think perhaps critics such as myself are guilty of holding one sport to a different standard than others.

Of course, maybe there are other mitigating factors. Baseball has historically drafted lots of white kids, and since most hockey prospects come out of Canada that tends to be a pretty white enterprise as well. Hoops, on the other hand, draws heavily from urban landscapes peopled largely by poor(er) blacks. So perhaps the concern is underpinned by a racial exploitation factor I haven't considered.

At any rate, maybe some of you can shed a bit of light on this?

Samuel R. Smith
Center for Mass Media Research               303.543.8610 (voice)
University of Colorado             

Date: Fri, 26 Jul 1996
From: Donald Johnson


I'm Don Johnson, professor of English at East Tennessee State University, long-time SLA member, and editor of Aethlon: the Journal of Sport Lit. I guess I'm in the minority, but I really think if a kid has a shot at the NBA with big money he should take it. College ball might injure him, or he might get hit by a car crossing the street, thus ending any opportunity for glory. School will be there always, and a better argument might be made for reaching maturity before one undertakes an eduation than before one enters the NBA. If it were my son, I'd say, go for it.

Don Johnson

Date: Fri, 26 Jul 1996
From: John J. Crocitti

Regarding Samuel Smith's comparison of basketball and baseball:

I might suggest that the NBA is evolving into de facto major and minor leagues. Hot draft choices, especially those foregoing the college experience, end up on lesser known, inferior teams. They hone their skills for three years and, if they are on the brink of superstar status, they use free agency to bolt to better teams located in the major media markets. Shaq would be a good example of this. He left LSU in his junior year, played with Orlando for 5 years, and now has left for Los Angeles despite a generous offer from his original team. In a couple years, when Penny follows Shaq, Orlando will be lucky to even make the playoffs. This is roughly comparable to the major-minor league system in baseball. Remember, in the days of the Yankee dynasty, the Kansas City Athletics were considered an unofficial minor league team that groomed prospects for New York.

John C.

Date: Fri, 26 Jul 1996
From: Bob Brown

Samuel Smith has brought a topic of considerable interest, as is obvious by the number of replies. Much of the debate stems from the issue of what exactly the purpose of college is. The ideal holds that the university is a place of the mind, where one goes to better their lives by taking courses, interacting in an intellectual environment, and improving their mental capabilities. Some may go so far to say that colleges should be reserved for those with the love of learning only.

More realistically, college is a site for improving skills to make oneself more marketable in the job search. Higher education, for all practical purposes, is the minor leagues for the world of employment. We train people in business, law, education, science, engineering, etc, so that they can get better jobs. It is becoming harder and harder to find a student who attends college simply to better their minds (and these few end up going to graduate school). And, if a student locates a good job they want before they graduate, there is some personal debate over which path to choose, yet no national controversy. If a business major receives a good job offer and leaves college early, they go, perhaps to return again someday.

The athlete is simply taking advantage of the same system. They come to college to improve their skills for the purpose of getting a job in the field they desire. While the numbers show that most will not achieve their goal, who is to say they should not try? And if they get the opportunity to get their dream job, then why should they not go?

There are problems, of course. Most will never make it to the pros, and therefore should concentrate of developing other skills while at school to be prepared for the future. Also, unlike the business major, the college athlete is not allowed to come back to work on their skills after they have signed in the "real" world. Finally, because athletes are under such a microscope, they find themselves receiving pressures and criticisms unreceived by other students (most of these criticisms from those who feel the athlete has misused college by emphasizing skills over the mind).

A difficult, and growing, issue.

Bob Brown
Indiana University

Date: Fri, 26 Jul 1996
From: Judith Hakola

Embedded in Samuel Smith recent "ponder" on students and athletes and student-athletes is a factor that distinguishes basketball from baseball and hockey, but he didn't comment on it specifically. That is, that both baseball and hockey have minor/junior leagues in which and through which youngsters who aren't academically college material can gain both experience and physical and emotional maturity out of the limelight--and without the temptation/distraction of immediate big bucks. And since many of the teams in both hockey and baseball are affiliated with major league teams, the young players in them are watched over somewhat, albeit to protect the investment. I don't think the CBA or European basketball teams offer anything comparable, so the young, talented, ambitious high school basketball player really doesn't have much choice except college to hone his (and soon her?) skills. If there were viable alternatives, I suspect that many young players would gladly forego the hassle of meeting (or evading) NCAA admission standards, academic requirements, etc. Football players are in a similar bind--there really isn't any other route to the big time than through college teams. (Ironically, as college hockey becomes a "better" game, Canadian and American scouts are urging talented kids to get their "minor league" training in an American college program--at the expense of the colleges. Thus we too often have colleges trying to keep French-speaking student athletes academically eligible.)

Judy Hakola
University of Maine

Date: Sun, 28 Jul 1996
From: Richard C. Crepeau

I would like to join in seconding both Don Johnson and Judy Hakola in their response to the posting by Samuel Smith. I would also add that there is little evidence that "seasoning and maturing that goes with developing the intellect" actually takes place for any significant numbers of student athletes or perhaps even students who are preoccupied with outside activity.

The notion that any athlete who is interested in going to college only to develop his or her athletic skills belongs there, is as bogus as the notion that any student who goes to college to grow up belongs there.

Institutions of higher learning should not exist to teach trade skills or serve as society's baby sitters. Unfortunately they do, and the less it happens the better. Get those who are athletes only off to the minor leagues in all sports and get them off campus.

None of this will happen, as indeed the American university has long since accepted these roles of vocational training and baby sitter, along with that of being a provider of entertainment for the masses.

Dick Crepeau

Date: Mon, 29 Jul 1996
From: Adam Barnhart

>From: "John J. Crocitti" 
>Subject: Re: Sport, Education and Hypocrisy
>Regarding Samuel Smith's comparison of basketball and baseball:
>I might suggest that the NBA is evolving into de facto major and minor
>leagues.  Hot draft choices, especially those foregoing the college
>experience, end up on lesser known, inferior teams.  They hone their
>skills for three years and, if they are on the brink of superstar status,
>they use free agency to bolt to better teams located in the major media
>markets.  Shaq would be a good example of this.  He left LSU in his
>junior year, played with Orlando for 5 years, and now has left for Los
>Angeles despite a generous offer from his original team.  In a couple
>years, when Penny follows Shaq, Orlando will be lucky to even make the
>playoffs.  This is roughly comparable to the major-minor league system
>in baseball.  Remember, in the days of the Yankee dynasty, the Kansas
>City Athletics were considered an unofficial minor league team that
>groomed prospects for New York.

Be careful with that major-minor analogy with respect to baseball. The example of the KC A's is one that isn't completely uncommon in baseball history (witness the Cleveland Spiders, which is even a MORE extreme example of what you speak of). But let's remember the counterexample of the old Baltimore team, which held onto players like Lefty Grove for years...the free minor leagues, for the first fifty or sixty years of baseball history, often produced teams which would be competitive in "major" leagues. It's really a question of where you land on the continuum.

At this point, I don't think it's the small(er) market teams that function as a minor league, but the upper echelon of NCAA teams. The notion that free agency will centralize power in basketball may be intuitive, but, with the historical background of baseball in place, I think what we can see now is that free agency aids competitive balance (though it seems as though that trend is slowing in baseball). If Miami can generate enough cash to pay two ultra-costly free agents, I don't see why Orlando couldn't do something similar.

Adam D. Barnhart

Date: Mon, 29 Jul 1996
From: Jim Naughton

I am not in a position to provide evidence that "seasoning and maturing" occur in the context of collegiate athletics, nor do I wish to offer a general endorsement of the sporting status quo, but, as someone who has covered sports on-and-off for the past 15 years, I can say that athletes who have attended college are often easier and more interesting to talk to than athletes who have not. They are more insightful about themselves, and about the role of sports in society. You can talk with them about issues like race and commercialization. They have sharper sense of humor.

This also carries over into the culture of the lockerroom. In my experience, basketball locker rooms are the easiest for an outsider to walk into, and baseball locker rooms are the hardest. (The culture of football is so highly-controlled that it is difficult to say what the players would be like if left to their own devices.) I think this may be because athletes who have attended college are better socialized and perhaps somewhat more socially aware than those who have not.

Admittedly this is anecdotal, not to mention highly subjective, and I don't advance it as an excuse for the abuses rampant in big-time college athletics. Still it seems to me worth noting that in at least some instances exposure to the college milieu seems beneficial to young athletes.

Jim Naughton

Date: Mon, 29 Jul 1996
From: David B. Merrell

Hi, I'm Dave Merrell, Faculty Athletics Representative at Abilene Christian University. I manage to work sport lit into my advanced fiction classes, but do not offer sport lit with such a small student population (the department feels that students deserve introduction to more "mainstream" literature). I also teach multicultural literature, which would receive the same reaction if TEA had not added multicultural literatures to the exam for teacher certification--perhaps we need sports lit on the exam, too.

At D-II and D-III school the phrase "student-athlete" can have meaning, though not always. Occasionally, the phrase "scholar-athlete" might be used, but not very often.

I certainly understand accepting million(s) out of high school rather than going to college, no matter the immaturity of the body, emotions, or spirit. Perhaps the NBA and NFL need to establish (sponsor, support) another feeder system to the colleges much like major league baseball has minor leagues as well as colleges. Some athletes are not ready for either college or the big leagues when they finish high school. At the same time, the NCAA should allow enough expense money for "pocket money" and trips home for the Christmas holidays as part of normal college expense, particularly for the D-I schools.

There is much more that can be said on this topic, but these are some of my conclusions.

David B. Merrell
ACU Box 29142
Abilene, Texas 79699-9142
915/674-2035; 915/674-6844 FAX

Date: Tue, 30 Jul 1996
From: John J. Crocitti

Thanks for the ideas regarding free agency and levels of professional sports. I agree that free agency has not concentrated talent in a few cities, as many have prediced. Your comments on baseball's minor leagues were enlightening.

One thing I might contest: Miami is indeed a media and entertainment center, albeit not on a par with NY or LA. In terms of the Latin American market, Miami is equal to those cities. When Howard and Mourning chose Miami, they improved their marketability and opportunities for income outside of basketball (endorsements, commercials, entertainment). Baltimore, Charlotte, and Orlando might offer basketball salaries equal to what Miami and LA gave O'Neill, Howard and Mourning, but the other benefits simply do not compare. (This does not account for lifestyle differences. With $100 million in your pocket, would you rather be in Miami or Baltimore?)

The NBA appears aimed for the international market. Isn't all of the Dream Team hype a global promotional effort for the NBA? If the NBA does become a global professional sport, what are your ideas regarding the league structure, distribution of talent, and media presentation?


Date: Tue, 30 Jul 1996
From: Kevin Lewis

I am trying hard to find a literary connection in these posts on abuses alleged or actual--for me they are actual--of college athletes (in the revenue-producing sports), colleges, and the rules voted in by the NCAA. The commment on comparative cultures of basketball and baseball locker rooms is juicy, worth examining. Thanks for it--it made me think of all the student-athletes who have stumbled into my classes over the years, most of them not knowing what they were getting into, and of comparative academic performances.

I don't have a literary perspective to offer, sorry, but it's hard to resist throwing in my two cents. I served three years on the faculty athletic advisory committee here at a straining, ambitious Division One School in one of the more corrupt conferences in the nation, and what I observed, naturally, had to be taken with a resilient sense of humor. Here's an example. At one meeting, our run-roughshod AD came in (with the usual entourage) and asked straight-faced for us to vote to lower the admission grade-point minimum for athletes tranfering in from junior college grade-laundering factories because, as he observed, the pool of athletes capable of performing for us (in hoops and football) *in* this state (our home recruiting area) are too dumb to qualify academically. Well, our committee did not have the power actually to change the requirement (of a certain minimum number of "Ds" on the tranfer transcript), but we were asked to vote to recommend the move to the appropriate faculty committee which could change it. All my faculty colleagues on our committee except yours truly and all the token student members but one bowed down to the AD and his cause. I still savor this momentary show of purity, sorry. Colleagues on the Academic Standards committee, to whom this request was then forwarded, have not stopped laughing or crying since.

I have not read it, but there's a book written by a colleague at a university in I think Illinois whose sceptical views of Athletic Dept. maneuverings around the arcane NCAA codes of behavior kept him off the faculty athletic advisory committee when he campaigned to get on it. His book was reviewed 3-4 years ago in _The Chronicle of Higher Ed_.

Over twenty years of teaching my few baseball-player students have been the best students. What would Lyle expect! Only one basketball player--he could score threes from anywhere over the half-court line--and he flunked out immediately. My football players, and I've had more of them because I was friends with their head tutor before the latest AD (see above) fired him, have generally been screw-offs or sleepers in the back row. I asked a row of them about dozing off in class once, and they said they just couldn't help it. They had been socialized to sleep in class. The only football player I can remember to have listened, done his own work, and exited honorably with his C (twice) was Steve Taneyhill, at least one of whose parents is a school-teacher in Pennsylvania, but who did not show much in this years Senior Bowl. One really likeable, professor-shy nose-guard lineman from Georgia told me after a couple of after-class talks that he had never read a book before. I guess this is not news.

It is a thorny problem. I tend to take the purer-than-thou side of the issues. But then along comes Don Johnson and I get his point, too. I *like* what the Presidents Council is doing in the NCAA, but it leaves the black coaches' sub-group in an absolutely impossible position. So when will the NBA do the right thing and support the start-up of minor leagues that matter? Apparently they have the money.

Roger Angell wrote a great piece on the Olympic ideal, amateurism, purity, and irony--where are the ironists where we need them on the telecasts!--in _The New Yorker_ dated about mid-July.

Kevin Lewis

Date: Tue, 30 Jul 1996
From: Adam Barnhart

Continuing this discussion of major/minor leagues and their relevance to contemporary mass-sport:

I certainly misspoke in downplaying Miami as a market -- certainly the Latin influence there is as strong as anywhere, save Los Angeles and perhaps San Antonio. My feeling, though, is that Orlando has emerged as a market of about the same magnitude. There are certainly some demographic issues that aren't as distinct as one would like, as the two cities aren't all that far apart, so there's some leakage.

In the context of the NBA, I'm not sure the Latin base is as important. There is certainly a Latin fan base, but there AREN'T Latin players...certainly not among this first tier of free agents. In baseball, you clearly don't have the same situation -- there's a long history of great Latin players/role models: Clemente, Oliva, Perez, Valenzuela, etc. Hence San Diego's play for an aging Fernando Valenzuela makes more sense.

My feeling is that one of two things will probably happen with respect to the NBA and a Major-Minor league development. One scenario is the one which is beginning to be played out, which is that the first tier of basketball schools (UCLA, North Carolina, Indiana, Connecticut) will continue to shovel athletes into their schools for one or two years (and, on occasion, three and four), with those athletes leaving when the market demands it, more or less. A second scenario is that the backlash against the quasi-student/athlete reaches such a pitch that the part-time students are left out of that loop and fall into a new one: namely, a "minor" basketball league. The CBA is a prime candidate here (one can see the possibility of the NBA extending the same hegemony over theoretically independent minor leagues that major league baseball did over the "minor" leagues several decades ago. As has been observed, though, basketball is becoming an international game, and I don't think it would be THAT outrageous to see the Italian League, for example, become a minor league.

Adam D. Barnhart

Date: Tue, 30 Jul 1996
From: Mike Clark

Although this is seemingly unrelated to the discussion of hypocrisy, I think that at a deeper level it may well be tied to it. I also believe the following ruminations relate directly to the discussion of the difference between sports and games:

I firmly believe that the NBA is on the verge of becoming a competitor for "Big-Time Wrestling." (You know, the WWF, the NWA, and all that.) There are good guys and bad guys; there is "show time" with scripted moves; officiating is a joke; the home team wins far more than reasonable expectation suggests it should. What does this then say about the activity? Will it remain a sport, or does this development finally push NBA basketball completely over the line into show business? If the latter is the case, what does that imply about the supposed competitive nature of the activity? Does it remain a sport, or does it revert to a game? Does this suggest that it is a physical activity only? And what about the relationship of NBA basketball then to the somewhat similar appearing "amateur" sport?

Mike Clark
Michigan State University

Date: Thu, 1 Aug 1996
From: Mike Clark

I discovered, with the help of some meaningful comments, that I was confused about which book to look at. I will return with the correct citation for "Rollerball" tomorrow. "Do Androids Dream" was indeed the basis for "Bladerunner," an equally interesting look at the future, but not a sporting one.

Sorry for the confusion I probably caused.

Mike Clark

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