Friday, September 23

In defense of football factories.

I was doing my usual devouring of sports Web sites yesterday, trying to get all the dope on this weekend's games and gauging what the experts think my Bulldogs are going to accomplish against those other Bulldogs (from Mississippi State) on Saturday, and I came across something that made me think a little (yeah, my head's still hurting. I need to stop doing that). In his discussion of how coaches Dave Wannstedt (at Pittsburgh) and Bill Callahan (at Nebraska) are really struggling as they try to get their players to adapt to new offensive systems, while Urban Meyer (at Florida) and Charlie Weis (at Notre Dame) don't seem to be having nearly as many problems, Mark Beech said this:

Tell me, why haven't I heard the "not getting the system" excuse at Notre Dame? New coach Charlie Weis made a name for himself in the NFL as an offensive genius, after all. Why haven't I heard it from Florida, where coach Urban Meyer has taught his complex spread option offense to a bunch of kids who weren't even recruited to play it? If you believe Meyer, he isn't even all that happy with the way his team is running the thing -- yet the Gators still beat an excellent Tennessee team Saturday night.

We haven't heard "not getting the system" from either of those schools, for the simple reason that Weis and Meyer haven't just installed a system. They have taught it. [My emphasis -- Ed.] The trouble I see for Pitt and Nebraska is I don't think either program is in the hands of men capable of much more than stewardship. There's little in the head-coaching pedigrees of Wannstedt and Callahan, who both have won championships at the collegiate and professional levels as assistants, to suggest they are the kind of head coaches who make teams better.

I don't think that college football coaches -- or really anyone associated with athletics at the college level, for that matter -- get enough credit for the extent to which teaching plays a role in their job responsibilities. Nor do I think football players get enough credit for what they learn on the field of play. I know I'm probably going to get hammered by the non-football-fan Philistines out there, not to mention plenty of Georgia Tech fans who think this is just my way of trying to excuse away stuff like the Jan Kemp affair, but here goes: Is it possible that playing football is a no-less-legitimate reason for someone to go to college than earning a degree in something else?

While they're on the practice field, in the film room or just going over the playbook in their dorms, football players are working just as hard to soak up knowledge and experience as the students in certain other more academic pursuits. Their coaches are trying to teach them something and (supposedly) mold them into better, more mature people, just like their professors. And no doubt a lot of them are hoping that they'll be able to turn their college success into a career -- just like the kids at journalism school, business school, law school, whatever.

"But all they're doing is focusing on football and ignoring other stuff." Well, I got news for you: Once you decide to major in something, depending on what it is, you may be spending a whole lot of time focusing on that field and not a whole lot on anything else. In my orientation at Georgia, when I took the placement exams for math and English and whatever else, I did well enough on the math test that I was able to forego all of the lower-level math courses. In fact, since I intended to major in a field (journalism) that didn't involve a whole lot of complicated math, I was told I didn't have to take any math courses at all for the entire four years. As for science, all I had to do was sleepwalk my way through a two-semester lab/lecture sequence and that was it. Conversely, I dare say that had I declared pre-med, nobody would've been watching me like a hawk to make sure I boned up on lots of English-literature and poli sci.

Look, I know that a lot of colleges and universities, to varying degrees, love to throw around a lot of highfalutin talk about making young people into well-rounded scholars and exploring the world of blah blah blah. But let's be honest with ourselves: For most people these days, college is first and foremost a way to choose a field you want to go into and position yourself for a productive career in it. If that field can be journalism, theatre, or law, why can't it also be football?

Because the chances of even an above-average college ball player moving on to fame and fortune in the NFL is so small? Well, look, I don't think anyone's graduating from business school immediately expecting to be picked as the senior VP of IBM, either. But I got news for you: A rewarding, high-paying career isn't a sure thing in any field. I know plenty of people who went to J-school and couldn't find decent jobs coming out of college, plenty more who got burned out and decided to move to other fields, and still others who said to hell with a career entirely and became homemakers (or, alternatively, decided to buy a van and follow Phish all over the country). I don't see these people getting hit with all sorts of accusations about how "Thanks to you, my degree means nothing" because of the choices they made.

And as for the accusation that a guy who goes to college just to play football is suffering under a college experience that has no application in the "real world" . . . well, you might also want to start giving that lecture to the philosophy, art, and medieval-poetry majors, too. Unless an in-depth knowledge of Nietzsche's "Übermensch" concept is absolutely vital to pouring lattes at Starbucks.

I went to college to learn how to become a better journalist (and go to lots of parties); some football players go to college to learn how to become better football players (and also go to lots of parties). And all you're doing is splitting some very fine hairs if you try to prove that one endeavor is somehow morally superior to another. Really, a football star and a philosophy student aren't nearly as far apart as they think they are -- it's just that a lot more people want to watch the football player take his exams.

Which reminds me, the Georgia players have a big exam coming up on Nov. 12 in a class called "Defeating the Auburn Tigers: Concepts and Strategies" (AUBN1008 in your course catalog), and I haven't missed it since 1997. It's always a doozy. So anyway, if anyone can get me (and possibly three of my friends) into the lecture hall, holla at a brother and let me know. Thanks.


Josh M. said...

I have often said "Football" (or conversely, "Basketball," "Cheerleading," "Soccer," etc.) should be an acceptable major in a University. It is preparation for a post-collegiate career, even if the student isn't successful in his chosen field (what percentage of us are working in a field related to our major anyway?).

I would have minored in Cheerleading, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Very well reasoned argument. You might also have pointed out that at alot of colleges the graduation rate for athletes is higher than the rate for all students. Critics of major college football have a hissy fit about scholarship athletes not ending up with a degree but are not as concerned about regular students who drop out (to use your example) to go Phising.

WTDT said...

Yes, it's stupid to diss players, coaches, and football's potential for imparting valuable life lessons--even if you don't like watching it, and I do. But college football is a revenue loser, yes it is, yes it is. They run an average of eight articles a week about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And that revenue comes out of the budgets of people who could be doing things with it that are, if not more noble, at least more than vaguely educational.

I'm not talking about augmenting my sweet four-figure grad student income, although it would be nice if there were room in the UW's budget for both a hundred-million-dollar stadium and for me to photocopy a twenty-page paper I'm giving at a conference that I'm paying my own way to. Sorry, that was shrill--let me make a more substantive comparison. It would be nice if the difference between the cost of top of the line genuine new finished wood lockers for the football team and normal lockers for the football team were less than the cost of my department being able to offer enough sections of its popular courses to meet student demand.

I'm not saying we should get rid of any sports. Football is expensive to play, I get it. But the difference between a million-dollar coach and a hundred-thousand dollar coach is squat for any of the reasons people use to defend expenditures. Same thing for regular planes vs. charter planes, adequate stadiums vs. luxury stadiums, and all the way down the line to those goddamn lockers.

The only comfort for someone like me, whose spring teaching job was cut because of funding concerns, is that student athletes are getting even more screwed, financially. (Unless they're taking money under the table from agents, and I heartily encourage them to do so.) But college football (and basketball, hockey, baseball, and a few other sports depending on the school) is a sickly boondoggle even at D-II, and at D-I it's positively Cheneyesque. Sorry, Doug--all the alumnal pride in the world doesn't mean plenty of folks at Georgia are getting screwed out of the chance to do what a university is really supposed to do.