College Athletics, Academics, and Student Success

There are a host of problems with the system of college athletics. For one thing, it is exploitative of the student athletes, even for those athletes who receive a full scholarship for the duration of their stay at the university.[1] For another, professors and aspirant professors (such as graduate students) grouse that the athletic budgets continue to rise while the academic budgets fall, so that top-tier universities have become sports conglomerates with an attached institution of higher education.[2] It is naive and simplistic to blame athletics for the tribulations of academia, though. And college athletics, whether it is a football game or march madness or some other sport, can be fun to watch.[3] It is also rewarding to watch students succeed in and out of the classroom both. For the students trying to become professional athletes the first measure of that success would be getting drafted and so it was cool to see a student succeed in last night’s NBA draft. Not in a “cool, I knew that person with national name recognition way,”[4] but in a v. public recognition of one student’s success way.

[1] According to the NCAA website, the percentage of student athletes on athletic scholarships in college are less than two percent. There are a number of documentaries, particularly in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, that deal with the issue of NCAA regulations and exploitation of student athletes and take all sorts of different perspectives about payments. “Pony Excess” examines the scandal at SMU in the 1980s and treats the situation as a dirty, out of control system of payments. On the other end of the spectrum, “The U” looks at the University of Miami scandals a decade later and the participants revel in the fact that they broke the rules because the system was unfair to them. Somewhere in between the two extremes falls “The Fab 5,” which looks at Michigan’s basketball program in the early nineties. While “The Fab 5” is at times hyperbolic about Duke and the monumental shifts in the landscape of basketball at that time, some of the more interesting elements are how it examines the relationship between athletics and profit for the university.

On a related note (although not about college athletics), I highly recommend the documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which examines the system by which Major League baseball recruits and signs players from the Dominican Republic. The system there is significantly more exploitative than even the NCAA is.

[2] There is truth to this statement, even though most sports don’t actually make money beyond attracting students. Using information for 2008 published by ESPN, I created a quick cross-section of some D1 institutions. With budgets sometimes well in excess of one hundred million dollars, eight of the nine institutions sampled ran a surplus, but once university subsidies are again taken out of the revenue, only three did so. Three of the schools operated with deficits of more than ten million dollars. The actual numbers, particularly for media revenue, have changed since 2008, but I suspect that it remains an exemplary sample overall.

I do not mean to declaim collegiate athletics or to self-righteously declare that that money would be better spent on academic scholarships, library books, humanities centers or hiring more tenure track professors, although all those would be in my own personal self-interest. Much of that money, including the money supplied by the university, may not exist without collegiate athletics. There are studies that convincingly demonstrate that successful sports programs bring in donations and increase the number of applications the university receives. Sports, more than academics at most universities, create a national brand and raise the profile of the university that can (even though it does not always) create a symbiotic relationship that bolsters both the athletic and academic programs. I should also note that the most noxious fact on the ESPN chart is that pay for coach often far exceeds the tuition expenses. In athletics, just as in academics…and in the rest of US society, it seems that there is a growing gap in benefits for upper level administrators and the workers. Of course, largely unlike many university presidents, the football coaches are actually critical for the success of the football programs, which leads back to the hope for the ideal symbiosis of athletics and academics.

[3] While the NCAA’s feel-good commercials about helping student athletes succeed in school and then in a career once their playing days are over seem rather phony,[3b] there is some truth to this. Most of the student athletes will not go on to be paid for playing the sports, either. There are also a myriad of other emotions teaching these students, from horror stories about runaway egos, to apathy, to the detachment experienced when national announcers praise a student for being such a vocal and active leader while that same student quietly goes about his business in the classroom. In my experience they are much like other students except longer, broader, lithe-r, and with more demands on their time.

[3b] Phony because like all major sporting organizations, the NCAA is basically a protection racket being run for money-making interests…and one that does more to provide a show of legitimacy than one with actual power over those interests. To wit: the NCAA office of enforcement has a v. limited budget and limited power to investigate or enforce rules. A recent report at Sports Illustrated revealed that the enforcement office itself was in disarray in large part because the president of the NCAA ignored internal reports about payments being made at the University of Miami and then acted shocked when the allegations were presented to them publicly. The V.P. of enforcement was then fired and others have stepped down. This evidently leaves a nominal staff of 60 enforcement personnel, with just two with investigators with experience in football or basketball cases. The enforcement office is still more than two grizzled old cops in a water closet conducting investigations, but there are 125 FBS football schools, more FCS, and hundreds of other sports teams across the country, so the office is heavily dependent on college enforcement offices to do the actual heavy lifting on rules enforcement. This may at times turn out to be a conflict of interest.

[4] Collegiate basketball players good enough to be drafted already had national name recognition.

From noreply@youremailhere

I don’t turn off my cellphone when I go into a movie theater. At one point I didn’t bother with the process because my phone couldn’t get reception in the sound-proofed rooms anyway. Now I turn on airplane mode in silent protest of the seemingly endless series of warnings to turn the device off. One of those messages asks the audience to wonder if phones dream when you turn them off. The clip instructs you to text the number provided after the movie to find out what your phone dreamed about.1 I mention this clip because it implies that your phone has a mind of its own and that you can communicate with it. Don’t worry, though, your phone is one of the good guys, not those computers that come to terrorize the human race in The Matrix or Terminator franchises.3

“We want you back.” So the automatically generated email from Yahoo! (sent to my Google account) just told me. Once the images appeared, the email from Yahoo! consisted of text informing me that my Yahoo! account will be deactivated in July and an image of a pretty Asian woman with long brown hair and a sweater looks at a smartphone (an iPhone, I think). I guess she is supposed to be looking at her Yahoo! email account. Further observation reveals that she is standing on a rocky beach overlooked by mountains that jut out into the sea. In the blurry background several of her blurry friends are setting up or taking down a blurry picnic. But she seems dispassionate about her surroundings and oddly enthralled by her phone and, by insinuation, her Yahoo! account.

Now, I have checked my phone while hiking along the side of a mountain the middle of New Hampshire, but, in my defense, I was trying to warn some other hikers about a treacherous stretch of trail. As it turned out, there was no reception on the mountain anyway. That was just as well. The message from this picture is clear though: go enjoy the outdoors, but nothing there is going to be quite as thrilling as whatever it is that Yahoo! provides.4

This email in and of itself has exerted a hold on me because while I have used certain Yahoo! services in the past few years,5 I haven’t actually used a Yahoo! email account in close to a decade. I sign into my Yahoo! services through my Google account. So when Yahoo! sent me an automatically generated message meant to imply that the people at Yahoo! care about me and want me to return to them, I interpreted the message as my Yahoo! account begging me not to end its existence. My Yahoo! account and the affiliated servers were the “we” in the message, not the company or the employees.

Maybe the Asian girl in the picture has an intimate relationship with her account that makes interaction with real people (let alone nature) unsatisfactory. I don’t know. In any case, my Yahoo! account is a stranger to me.

1 I have been vaguely curious whether anyone actually tries to find out what their phone dreams about about. For one thing, the same clip that supplies the number to send the message to has just ordered the audience to turn off their phones, the same devices that serve as memory crutches. How many people in that darkened theater have pen and paper to write down the number? And even for those people who stay until after the credits to catch a thirty second glimpse at an upcoming sequel,2 there is no reminder that your phone has been dreaming and there is a number you can use to psychoanalyze your phone. My phone stays on at almost all times except when I drop it sending the back cover and battery skittering across the floor. But that is less like going to sleep and more like being bludgeoned with a baseball bat or knocked cold after falling from a ledge.
2Or, as I sometimes do, you just must find out what that song was that was playing at the crucial moment.
3I assume this is the case. Who knows? Maybe your phone is dreaming of world conquest rather than of Giga pets romping around a digital yard.
4Then again, there is a danger of being so distracted by your phone that a bear will surprise you.
5For instance, fantasy baseball, fantasy hockey, and college football pick’em.

John Sugden, Nelson: The Sword of Albion. Henry Holt: New York, 2013.1

Who was Horatio Nelson? Why does his likeness stand above Trafalgar Square in London? Was he a singularly great warrior? Was he just a product of the British navy? Why is he revered in Britain?

“He was, after all, a married man returning with his adulterous love, threatened with being unmasked by the secret child growing inside her, and her cuckolded husband.” (355)

In the second volume of a two-part biography of Nelson, Sugden narrates the twists and turns of the last seven years of Nelson’s life. He begins the story in September 1797 when Nelson was recovering from the amputation of his arm and follows the admiral through the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In between, he recounts Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay, and his northern campaign, as well as Nelson’s troubled family life and extended affair with Emma Hamilton.

In his introduction, Sugden says that the naval aspects of Nelson’s career have been well documented, so this biography serves to illuminate Nelson as an individual. For this reason, he provides exhaustive details about Nelson’s life, a product of extensive knowledge of Nelson’s personal correspondences, ship’s logs, and the records of other contemporaries who talked about Nelson. He does narrate the military exploits that made the admiral famous. But, while the the discussion of the battles and campaigns are usually adequate, they are not the strength of this book. The strength is the weight of correspondences that Sugden brings to bear. These documents reveal that Nelson was not a singularly gifted warrior or sailor, but a man who oscillated between supreme confidence in the abilities of his fleet with an insatiable hunger for public accolades and suffering from bouts of illness and depression. The letters reveal, in particular, that Nelson was petulant about perceived mistreatment by the board of the admiralty and bitter that, repeatedly, other admirals were appointed to command fleets at his expense. Sugden also uses these letters to examine in some depth Nelson’s relationship with Emma Hamilton that caused Nelson to become estranged from his wife, Fanny. While Nelson’s affair with Lady Hamilton is the most lurid relationship presented, Sugden locates Nelson within a web of personal relationships that promoted, sustained, and impeded him by turns, as was the norm for upwardly mobile young men in the Royal Navy.2

Sugden’s biography of Nelson is what it purports to be: a blow by blow account of the last seven years of the admiral’s life enriched by an extensive documentary evidence. In the sense that, in the author’s mind, there is no extant biography of Nelson that sufficiently reveals the man, Sugden’s work is a valuable read. Sugden also tries to posit some long term effects of Nelson’s naval victories such as the revolutions in Central and South America, growth of the United States, and the nineteenth century Pax Britannia. But in the context the inclusion of such sweeping statements serve more to justify the biographical subject than to actually discuss historical causation.

Hence a larger critique. For all the revealing detail Sugden includes about Nelson’s personality and family, one is left to wonder: so what? To be sure, Nelson was a man whose military achievements elevated him from a middle of the road non-noble family to the peerage with estates in two kingdoms. Moreover, despite Nelson’s exceptionalism he is one of the most enthralling examples of an officer in the British Navy and well worth study on both counts. But both of those could be examined without the same sprawling narrative. The extensive quotation from letters and logs is informative, but it is often possible to disagree with his interpretation (see below) and many of those sources are unavailable to readers. What remains is Nelson, a hero, as the subject of fascination still today.

The result is that the second volume of the biography is a form of the dreaded great man history.3 Throughout this volume Nelson is an admiral in the British navy, he courts the favor of royalty, and he trades his devoted middle-class wife for the wife of the British ambassador to Naples.4 Sugden also includes a large number of names–of ships, of captains and other officers, of people close to Nelson and his family–but the gaze is focused on the extended family (so to speak) of the officer- and future officer corps of the British Navy. Absent are the sailors from the British navy, the French, Spanish, Danish, Neapolitan, and Portuguese sailors and many of the officers, and, often, even the names of the ships in the other fleets. The inconsistent detail, like Sugden’s affectation of the phrasing found in the letters, perhaps sets the audience alongside Nelson himself, but the result is that there is a relatively shallow narrative of the events and Nelson set as the apex of the enterprise. With minimal exceptions, the events narrated, complete with suffering and heroism, actually take place in a shadow world only glimpsed through the incomplete fictions of ships logs documenting food intake, diseases, and casualty statistics that Sugden occasionally mentions.5

As one might expect in writing a biography that makes such extensive use of letters, Sugden tends to read into the psyche of his subjects. But it is likely that Sugden also reads too much into these letters. For instance, he is overly credulous when it comes to epistolic conventions and gendered assumptions–particularly between men. To wit, two examples both dealing with Nelson’s relationship with Thomas Troubridge, one of the captains at Aboukir Bay:

“Troubridge was a fine sea officer, amazingly energetic and tigerish in disposition, but he was too quick-tempered, artless and emotionally unstable to command a complicated theatre. Yet the two men worked well in tandem–almost too well. Their friendship had attained a rare intensity, not so surprising in Nelson, whose feminine sensitivity fuelled deep attachments and innumerable kindnesses, but more remarkable in a figure as masculine, bluff and brutally blunt and down-to-earth as Troubridge. Any stresses that beset their friendship frequently reduced both men to tears.” (60)

And when describing how Troubridge tried to pry Nelson away from Emma Hamilton:

“Of the brothers none loved Nelson more than Thomas Troubridge, once the admiral’s soulmate… They had dreamed dreams together. But now it was increasingly the Hamiltons who provided Nelson with that close, confidential and emotional support, and Troubridge’s increasing bellicosity may have had its roots in jealousy.” (293)

Sugden may be appraising these situations correctly, but it seems more likely that these descriptions are caricatures that a simplistic reading of these letters would lead to. Too, some of these statements are without hint of source material, suggesting that they are inferences that Sugden makes based on his interpretation of other letters.

In sum, Sugden reveals a portrait of Nelson the man that is frequently engaging. In full disclosure, this author has had a fascination and some measure of resonance with Nelson for about a decade and immensely enjoyed the first volume of Sugden’s biography of Nelson. But whether it is discontent with the biography genre6 or more (noticeable) instances where Sugden fell victim to sweeping generalizations and shallow caricatures, Nelson: The Sword of Albion just seemed superficial.

1I received this book as a free review copy and it does not include the plates that will be in the edition that goes on sale this month. There are also endnotes indicated in the text, but they are not included in this early print. Included is a glossary, bibliography, and a note on the sources.
2 The promotion aspect of this web was more evident in Sugden’s first volume that tracked Nelson’s early career. While his relationships did earn him promotions later, Sugden describes Nelson as a man whose impetuous and sometimes sullen nature caused him to be disliked by an increasing number of senior officers as his career wore on. At the same time, he describes Nelson as becoming increasingly sensitive to the criticisms of those same officers.
3Volume one did not suffer to the same extent because while you knew that Nelson was destined for greatness (as it were), he was not yet a great man hobnobbing with the elite and it was therefore easier to examine the stages in the career of a young officer in the British navy.
4Sugden provides a cursory account of Emma’s life. As an upwardly mobile nobody who charmed her way into some of the upper ranks of society, Emma would perhaps provide a more telling biography about that aspect of society than Nelson does.
5 Much better in this regard is N.A.M. Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean, which includes chapters dedicated to the social history of the British Navy (recruitment, procurement, training, health, etc).
6As a budding historian, this is an ongoing concern.

Graduate School Update, June 2013

It has been a little while since I updated friends and family about what I have been up to in regard to schooling. I recently passed one of the major steps toward my degree so I thought now would be a good time to do that.

I have spent the last two years working on my PhD in Greek History at the University of Missouri. This past semester I finished my formal coursework for the degree and last month I also took and finished my comprehensive exams (more on this below). All I formally have left is to write my dissertation, a process I will begin sometime next week and continue to work on for the next several years. Informally, though, I also have teaching, conference presentations, articles to get published, and language classes to audit. The tentative schedule is to take three years on these projects, but some of it will depend on how much time I need to spend in Greece doing research.

As noted above, I am now ABD, meaning that I am finished with coursework and passed the comprehensive exams, so I have finished all but the dissertation. The comprehensive exam process depends a great deal upon the faculty members administering it. The committee of faculty members (as it is done at this institution) consists of five people: the advisor, three faculty members from the department, and a faculty member from another department. Those faculty members (sometimes in collaboration with the student) provide reading lists that ranges in size from ten or fifteen books or chapters to several hundred books.1 The student then prepares for the exam by reading as many of the books as possible. The process reaches a climax when three or more of the committee members prepare a battery of tests for the student to take over the course of three days. The committee members then read the written exams and within two weeks the merry band meets and the student provides oral answers to questions for two hours.

If the committee finds the answers satisfactory, the student emerges from the cocoon of the reading lists as a PhD candidate.

The next step is the dissertation. My project is going to be a regional history (of some variety) about Thessaly, the region in Greece north of the pass of Thermopylae, but south of Mount Olympus. The link above is to a Google map of the modern Greek province that provides a general outline of the area, although some Thessalian cities also claimed territory further south (mostly the plain right around the city of Lamia). Too, it is important to remember that lines on a map are not solid, particularly when dealing with a regional history of a region that was not united itself. The chronological bounds of my study are going to be roughly 510 to 344 BCE. But beyond nascent ruminations, what I just listed is what I know. I have not yet really begun.

I am not sure how much I am going to write about the project here or elsewhere online. I love the idea of being public with ideas and writings and have a tendency to think in ink, as it were, but there are also professional pitfalls in doing so. For one thing, everything written here–misguided, well intentioned,insightful, politically correct, exemplary scholarship, or the inverse of those adjective–is public record. Thus, even when there is no risk of intellectual theft of something as important to one’s career as a dissertation,2 there is risk of opinions being formed about incomplete work.

I still hope to have episodes that I can comment on as I get into work, but I will shy away from discussing anything that I stumble on and think that I may be able to get published.

1 I had four total lists that had something like five or six hundred books on them counting both primary and secondary sources. I also ended up citing a number of books that were not on any of the lists. I have also saved the reading lists that I used, as well as many of the questions I received and that I heard about from other people if there is anyone who would like to look at them.
2 And there is significant risk. There are plenty of academic horror stories about this sort of theft.