Saturday, May 01, 2010

Campus culture clash: Scholarship and Athletics

Be careful of the metaphor you choose. It can put a lock on your mind.

Take the case of NCAA Division I college sports and how the University of Oregon’s athletic program was described in a New York Times story today.

The story displays a parade of useless metaphors all trying to address a serious problem.

At UO they have a star quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli who has been suspended from the football program after pleading guilty to burglary. (He stole a computer, even though the football program lends laptops to players free. Steal a computer when you can have one for free? And this guy's on a SCHOLARship?)

Then we have the handshake agreement to pay the departing athletic director Mike Bellotti a cool $2.3 million to leave. This sounds like something that might happen at a high-stakes poker game or in golf match between very rich executives. But on a college campus?

There’s more. The University must make bond payments on a new $227 million basketball pavilion. Here a little context is in order: The University of Oregon’s faculty is grossly underpaid and tuition is skyrocketing.

Go figure.

And somewhere lurking in the background is one Phil Knight, NIKE gazillionaire. The story doesn’t delve into the NIKE influence, but clearly Phil lives by his own rules — and he applies them to UO.

Back to the push and pull in the Times story. The quotes from critics of UO athletics frame the issue in metaphors that lock out solutions.

“It’s time for the athletic department to do a little soul searching on how they can serve the university,” said one professor. “The athletic department is out of control here.”

Implied answer: search your soul, serve the university and get things under control.

Also, take three aspirin and go to bed.

A sports psychologist, tipsy on metaphors, says, “We have reached a tipping point. You have to have this homeostatic balance — you can’t just run athletics as an entity by itself. What I think is important is that the University of Oregon is a unique place — most alums and most donors want to see a healthy balance. They want to see a school jump up in the academic rankings and not just see a top-five football team. We are really at a crossroads. I would hope the new administration would see this as a new opportunity and not a Band-Aide.”

Band-Aides, tipping points, homeostasis, healthy balance, crossroads. Got that?

Let me try a straight-forward metaphor.

What we have on this campus — and all NCAA Division I campuses to some degree — is a clash of cultures.

The cultures don’t belong in the same place. They are at odds. They have utterly different goals and values.

Football is mass entertainment, not education. Education is learning, not spectator entertainment. Sure one can, and should, have elements of the other, but that’s where it ends.

Wide receivers “learn” how to run pass routes; physicists and lit majors should get a some entertaining exercise. A little Frisbee perhaps? A jog through an academic glen?

But that’s about it.

Let's stop pretending that high-profile, televised, hyper-commercial, monetized athletics as anything to do with higher education.

Just note the tension in the term “athletic scholarship.” Note the absurdity of calling a collegiate sports rivalry “The Civil War,” which, as students of history know, was a great national tragedy. Note how supposedly educated adults behave like buffoons at athletic events.

Note that this weekend we have headlines screaming that a Portland high school backetball star, Terrence Jones, has chosen to go to the University of Washington, where he will receive a full ride “scholarship.” We all know he will use the Seattle campus/stage as a stepping stone to the professional sports fame. Call me crazy but my guess is that he will not leave the great University of Washington versed in history, literature or philosophy.

Where are the best high school students going? And why don’t we, the general spectator public, care? Why isn’t it news? And will these scholars receive full-ride scholarships? And why will they stay and graduate? And what are their chances for employment out of college? Will they command the same seven-digit salaries that the likes of Terrence Jones will?

Two cultures. Different values. Worlds apart.

The universities, their administrations and their alumni need to choose one. They can’t live in both at once.

The answer is a “National Athletic Association” minus “Collegiate.” It’s where young, talented athletes go to prepare for the professional leagues. If those NAA teams want to locate in college towns and wear college colors and even be “sponsored” by the local university, fine.

But let’s not conflate the two.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Songs about Nothing

You must do nothing before you can do something. Silence surrounds and intersects sound. Darkness defines light.

Such is the power of nothing.

Joan Konner has compiled an anthology of quotations celebrating nothing. “You Don’t Have to be a Buddhist to Know Nothing” has a busy title, but the book is packed with trenchant notions about nothing.

Dip into it anywhere and discover the power of nothing.


“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely to nowhere.” Frank Herbert

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being — like a worm.” Jean-Paul Sartre.

“The deepest you is the nothing side, is the side which you don’t know.” Alan Watts.

“With chess, as in literature, you can’t fill all the spaces because there would then be no game to play, no story to tell.” Timothy Walsh

The book often presents familiar words about nothing that you are forced to understand in a radically different way.

Some of the most familiar are lyrics.

“Nothing from nothing is nothing.” Billy Preston

“Nothing’s going to change my world.” Lennon-McCartney

“I’ve got plenty of nothing and nothing’s got plenty for me.” George Gershwin

“He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” Lennon-McCartney

“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.” Paul Simon

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