As the PSU tragedy continues to unfold, a number of thoughtful people have noted all the bad things about college sports, or, more specifically, college football and basketball. These programs drain university budgets, they provide a free farm system for professional leagues, they risk the health and safety of young adults, and they create a climate of anti-academic hyper-masculinity. I agree with these arguments; hell, I’ve seen it first-hand. While a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I worked as a TA for a class in which then-junior basketball phenom Aaron Brooks had enrolled. Brooks would regularly — as in, every class — show up late and loud, and leave early in the same manner. It was extremely disruptive, and the lead instructor finally got so fed up with it that he called Brooks out: “Hey, Aaron, where you going? What’s so important?” Brooks just kept walking…right on to the NBA, where he now plays for the Phoenix Suns. So good for him; annoying for the instructor, us TAs, the students in the class, and everyone else who had to put up with Brooks’s arrogant awareness that because of his ability on the court, he basically got a free pass on campus.
But here’s the thing: I really like college football and basketball. If it weren’t for our new shorty, I’d probably spend most autumn Saturdays on the couch watching football, and all of March obsessing over the NCAA tournament. And while I’m often amazed by the quality of play, I’m more attracted to college sports because of the enthusiasm of both the players and the student-fans. For many players, especially those from small schools, this is it — these college games are the last time they’re going to play, and they lay it all on the line. That’s what I love about March Madness; in the early rounds especially, you’re watching college kids who will never have this chance again, and they know it, and so they play with an energy and passion that is unmatched in the pros. Same goes with the fans. The difference between a college basketball game and a pro basketball game is night and day. The combination of youth, pent-up energy from studying, and probably alcohol creates an absolute frenzy in the student section, which often infects the alumni/public sections and makes these games something more than entertainment. It’s a community event. Again, I’ve seen this first-hand; even as I spat at the name of Aaron Brooks the student, I loved standing in the student section at Mac Court, yelling my head off when that kid drove the lane. I’ll also make an academic case for college sports, because some of the athletes (I won’t hazard a percentage) get a real sense of focus and determination from their extracurricular activities that also informs their classroom work. I think of another Oregon basketball player, whose name I can’t remember (because he was a third-stringer, probably), who worked his ass off in class and kept a detailed schedule to make sure he was on top of his work; not the brightest guy, but one of the most determined students I’ve ever worked with.
What’s the solution? It probably involves the creation of real semi-pro leagues for the top football and basketball players, kids who are more interested in playing ball that in studying and who probably have more ability in the former than the latter. That doesn’t necessarily mean that universities have to give up their football and basketball programs; they would instead transform into something like college baseball, which still exists, but isn’t the only route to the majors (as I understand the system). We fans would have to accept a lower level of talent, but I’m okay with that. This “solution” probably has a lot of problems and is certainly a long ways off. And so I have to figure out what I’m going to do, personally. Not sure about that. I’ll probably continue to rail against college sports even as I tune in for my favorite teams. Oh, the hypocrisy!