Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Falling Out of Love with Football

On our departmental discussion list we are currently discussing an article in Inside Higher Ed that reports the vast majority of college athletics programs – including ours at UCF – are money losers. One report suggests that

[i]f we subtract this allocation [of student fees, direct institutional and governmental  support] from the total revenue average, we find that the average I-A athletic department generated $27.9 million in revenue in 2004-05. This means that without the institutional and government subsidies, the average department ran a deficit of $6.67 million. Put differently, 95 of the 117 I-A schools lost money on their intercollegiate athletic programs when subsidies are excluded.

     - Andrew Zimbalist, “College athletic budgets are bulging but their profits
       are slim to none,”  Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal,
       (June 18, 2007), 26.

My main argument is that college sports has become a business supported by student fees and tax moneys at a time when colleges can ill afford such a luxury. I am not opposed to sports per se, I do have problems with taxpayer subsidy of extra curricular entertainment activities that suck the lifeblood out of colleges and universities already starved for sufficient operating funds by socially irresponsible legislatures.

As a part of my argument, I lay out a bit of my personal history with sports. To wit:

So why do I care? Indulge me a moment.

Much of my life I have been a big football fan. One of my fondest memories from my childhood was watching my father nearly lose his mind as we cleared the land on which our house was built all the while listening on a transistor radio to the University of Florida Gators upset the Alabama Crimson Tide (then #1 in the nation) in 1963. Later that fall I attended my first UF game with my dad (who met my mother at UF). I was hooked. And thus began a long period of being a consummate Gator fan.

In 1991 I moved to California to attend seminary. On opening game day at Berkeley, the Golden Bears were playing the San Jose State Spartans. It was a bloodbath. When the cannon celebrating UC touchdowns had gone off for a third time over at Memorial Stadium in the first quarter, we knew the game was over. And so I headed out to the campus to the library figuring it would be a good time to get into the stacks with all the students (and alums) getting all liquored up over at the stadium.

What I found shocked this product of SEC football schools. The library was full that Saturday afternoon. Students were studying, oblvious to the goings on over at Memorial Stadium. And when I left the library to go over to Telegraph Avenue, the main shopping street leading south to Oakland from Berkeley, the coffee shops were full of students studying and discussing... gulp.... class materials. All of a sudden I had this incredible sense of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in which she remarks to her dog, "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto." Indeed, years later while working on my dissertation, when I tried the same gambit at UF on a Saturday during its football season, the library was closed. Cue Dorothy/Toto/Kansas reprise.

What began to become clear to me that day in Berkeley was something I never learned at the University of Florida in either undergrad or law school - that state universities did not exist for the purpose of fielding sports teams and entertaining drunken alumni. The reality in California was that most people there recognized football for what it is - a game played by teenage boys. Any notions of honor/shame or locus of one's identity are projected onto that game by those who construct it as such.

I have come to believe that public universities should not be in the business of entertaining people, whether it's our own students or the general public. That includes expensive, revenue draining sports programs and it includes daytime performances of Sesame Street and night time carnivals with ice rinks and ferris wheels. The purpose of the university is to educate the public. When it is doing that job even adequately, which is clearly NOT the case right now, then we can begin to talk about extra curricular activities. Moreover, when sports programs pay their own way, do not conflict with legitimate university functions and can be accomodated by the university's schedule, no one will question them. But that is not what is happening now.

Further disenchantment with college football occurred when I returned to Florida from California to complete my Ph.D. at Florida State. Having been a lifelong Gator fan, the first born of two UF grads who ultimately produced three UF grads (and one renegade who also attained a doctorate from FSU), I was immediately suspect in Tallahassee. People were rude- even nasty- to me on a regular basis upon discovering my deep, dark secret. And that rudeness was not confined to Seminole fans. My family began to treat me differently. My sister said that she didn't admit to her friends that I actually attended FSU. My friends from undergrad and law school at UF began to pummel me with emails imploring me to be the good Gator fan they had always known.

That experience drove the nail through the coffin lid for me and college sports. All that vitriol over boys (and girls, in sports outside football) playing games! I have come to the point where I generally don't watch much football on TV and rarely attend a game (for the record, I attended three games with the students from the Episcopal Chapel at FSU when I was assistant chaplain there and I have attended two games at UCF since I have been here). I find being confined to a chair for three hour of bubba speak and obnoxious car and beer ads a violation of the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. I almost always turn off the local news after weather to avoid the sports segment with its litanies of sports from high schools to the local [your corporate logo here] professional sports team.

Ignoring the omnipresent consumerist demand for distraction and diversion through sports is always possible with a little work. But when the obsession with sports begins to affect aspects of this world that actually are important - like education - remaining silent is not an option. I am hardly opposed to having fun on either side of the podium at the university. What I oppose is funding a sports program which has lost its sense of its proper place at the university - an extra-curricular activity which supports the purpose of the university, educating the public - and not yet another manifestation of the consumer distraction industry known as entertainment.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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