06 January, 2006

Thoughts on national championships

So: The University of Texas, National Champions.

Actually, the University of Texas is now the reigning NCAA Divison 1 title holder in Football and Baseball, and for a time early this season the basketball team was ranked #2 in the country. Which makes for a bunch of happy UT alumni and fans. I've been a Texas athletics fan since...since I was born, practically. My father played football at the University of Texas. I grew up in Austin. I have pictures of myself, as a four-year-old boy, posing in front of Big Bertha with a UT cheerleader. Right now, in the CD player in my truck, there's a recording of the Longhorn Band. My sisters got tickets to the Rose Bowl and flew to Pasadena. And, yes, I watched, and cheered myself hoarse, and wore burnt orange to the office the next day.

All that said, the current state of collegiate athletics in this country has taken on a life of its own rather than being an integrated part of the education of our best and brightest. I believe that the availability of athletic challenge--for students, not as a spectator sport--is a significant part of an elite education. And every so often I wonder if being a fan of college athletics means that I’m missing the point.

How many Nobel laureates are teaching at UT? How many volumes in the libraries? Or, if that's too esoteric for you, how about this--who's the current president of the University?

(seven, but only one in Austin; eight million, give or take a few; as of Feb 1st, it's William C. Powers, Jr)

I view the current state of big-time collegiate sports, including those played at my alma maters, as entertainment—something disconnected from the purpose of a university, played by people who are not students in the usual sense of the word. Nothing wrong with entertainment; I’m a big fan of the NFL and of professional baseball at all levels, and I’m learning to be a Spurs fan, here in my first season. But that’s what professional sports are for. Professional football, baseball, and basketball leagues exist in this country for both men and women--multiples of all three, actually.

One really good reason I can think of to have scholarship athletes is one that I can put a face on. My freshman year roommate in college was a bright, articulate fellow, funny and handsome. And huge. I’m remembering him about 6-4, 275. He played center for the football team, and majored in English. Late at night, I’d be up doing Math and Physics homework, and he was almost always up late, reading glasses on, under the lamp, in the middle of yet another book. He parlayed his size and athletic skill into a university degree and a good education. Sadly, not all scholarship athletes take the same path, getting by with minimal grades and minimal effort in less than meaningful curricula.

Here's the biggest reason for my discomfort: the enormous extent to which alumni of schools, and even non-alumni residents of college towns, identify with collegiate athletics rather than the "sober, fearless pursuit of truth, beauty, and righteousness..." (to quote the language on my undergraduate diploma) is shameful. Many large-school alumni seem to care more for the performance of the current athletic team than they care for each other—at least, to judge from the content of their conversations.

When the most common place for the alumni of America's great places of learning to interact is at the stadium or in front of the TV watching sporting events, and if our conversations never go beyond sports, then we've forfeited our power to change the world.

1 comment:

pat Greene said...

I guess this is where I have a skewed perspective, having graduated from a woman's college that doesn't even have a school mascot. : )

But I see it when I go back east and my husband and his brother spend a lot of time talking college sports. (You would be surprised how much angst gets generated over who wins the Georgia - Georgia Tech game. Or, maybe you wouldn't.) Sometimes it seems as though they talk college sports because it is *safe* -- they are on different planets politically, and they are afraid to talk about anything substantive.

The "sober, fearless pursuit of truth, beauty, and righteousness..." is a staggering undertaking. Maybe as a people we have become too lazy or fearful to undertake it, which would be a shame.