On Race Relations, Hail to College Sports
I was intrigued by Buzz Bissinger’s column this week in the Daily Beast regarding what he calls the “Heisman Hypocrisy.” Bissinger, the widely acclaimed author of Friday Night Lights, took the NCAA to task this week for supposed hypocrisy in banning the father of this year’s Heisman winner, Cam Newton, from the celebration.
At issue was the substantiated charge that prior to Cam’s signing with Auburn University, his father, Cecil, had demanded cash in the range of $100,000 to $150,000 for Cam to sign with Mississippi State (MSU). According to Bissinger’s logic, the entire concept of college student athlete is not only outdated, but dishonest and immoral. Bissinger wrote that the system itself, which garners mega-millions for successful university athletic programs, is the modern equivalent of a “master-slave” system, in which the athletes get next to nothing and the universities for which they play get rich. Bissinger goes on to write that, at the very least, every college athlete ought to get a financial reward in the amount of the scholarship.
As a mom, I think Mr. Bissinger is as shortsighted as he appears to be dimwitted.
Now, I can find no mention of Buzz Bissinger ever participating in college athletics, either as an athlete on scholarship or otherwise. In that, we have something in common; I haven’t either.
But I did marry a Division I college football player while he was still on scholarship, and we have a son who gained his undergraduate degree on a full athletic scholarship in D-I wrestling. And I count myself among the once hard-core skeptics on the matter of mixing sports with academics.
I grew up in the 1950s and 60s with a twin brother. My brother and I both participated in lots of sports as children. At swim meets and rodeos, I got equal play, won lots of ribbons and medals, and felt quite the accomplished athlete by the time I started high school. But then, everything changed. The only female sport at my large suburban high school was basketball -- at which I was an utter flop. While my brother continued to play various team sports all the way through high school, I was sidelined as a cheerleader. Yes, I always fiercely resented the hoopla afforded the football players. And vowed I would never marry a jock.
Now, forty years after marrying one jock and raising another, I’ve completely changed my opinion. I’m thrilled that young women now have the opportunities to participate which I never had. And I’ve always suspected that a bone of resentment underlies the callous opinions of non-jock commentators, such as Buzz Bissinger. If only he could have made the grade, perhaps he would feel differently.
It’s no secret that some major universities enable poor academic performance among student athletes, some of whom never graduate (much less come out of the experience with a genuine education).
On the other hand, a great many universities still cling to the proposition that the student athlete is a treasure to his school, able to excel in both the classroom and in his chosen field of sports. It should go without saying that this extra-rigorous challenge to young men and women develops their toughness, perseverence, and team spirit in a way that greatly enhances their future work experiences.
But though Mr. Bissinger claims to have done thorough research at a few schools, he certainly cannot claim that all schools abuse the student athlete system. I know for a fact not only that my husband and his teammates were required to make the grades academically, but that the entire professor brigade at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, held an unspoken resentment of athletes -- especially football players -- and made the players’ academic lives even more demanding.
Our son wrestled for four years at Northwestern University, all on full scholarship. I’ll never forget that before his coach could even recruit him in high school, our son had to formally apply and gain acceptance on a purely academic basis. For four years, I watched our son travel across several states to wrestle another Big Ten school, get a few hours’ sleep at most, then make it to an early morning quiz and a full day of classes, followed by several hours of rigorous practice, several more hours of equally rigorous study, only to get up the next morning and prepare for the next weekend’s contest. No one can tell me that college athletes don’t better prepare for the rigors of adult life than the average student. Our son’s business success and post-graduate degrees add weight to my theory.
It is no secret that football garners enough money for most universities to fund their entire smorgasbord of other sports. No, the minor sports -- though they greatly benefit their participants and admirers -- usually do not even pay for their own scholarships or travel expenses. When asked about the role of sports in college life, Bear Bryant said, “It’s kind of hard to rally around a math class,” to which he might as well have added that no one is going to pay to watch students take the math quiz either.
Nearly all of the female university sports lose gobs of money -- which must be gotten somewhere, if those athletes are to be given the equal-opportunity advantages mandated by the federal government. It seems strange that such a liberal-minded man as Buzz Bissinger would want to see college football’s millions gutted by large payoffs to those stars, when it would be all the other college athletes who would suffer first and foremost.
Which brings us back to Cam Cameron, the winner of this year’s Heisman Trophy. Buzz Bissinger wrote his column for the Daily Beast in defense of one father’s greed, suggesting that because Cecil Cameron sought to enrich himself, son unawares, on account of Cam's quarterbacking prowess, the entire system of college athletics ought to be turned into a professional enterprise. Worse, Bissinger brought a racial element into the mix, insinuating that exceptionally talented black athletes would never amount to anything later in life, their short-lived athletic gifts the only thing these students had to offer the modern university. To which I, the old Mom, say poppycock! Let me give Mr. Bissinger and all the condescending racist liberals a clue here.
Take all the liberal dream schemes of school busing, affirmative action and racial quota systems, add them up, and ask what quality of integration and racial harmony they produced in the end. Urban schools are now more segregated than they were in the '70s. Affirmative action and quota systems have produced nothing but the wholesale destruction of the scholarly and meritocratic standards to which liberals pay such lip service.
On the other hand, college sports, along with the military, have arguably produced more integration and racial harmony among players, student bodies, fans, and sportscasters than any other American endeavor. On the football field -- or the wrestling mat or the basketball court or the baseball field -- integration is based on the one thing money can’t buy and governments can’t coerce: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.