The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

I’ve been baking today, almost a week after the NCAA football championship game and the day before NFL playoffs. The baking is neither here nor there, but it has allowed my mind to wander and one of the topics I’ve been idling on has been why I like NCAA football more than NFL football, and generally why I prefer college athletics to the professional equivalent. Along the way I was struck by a mythical parallel, which I will get to in a moment.

The first issue here is why caring about one rather than the other matters in the slightest. Other than college football being the inspiration for innumerable think-pieces about the corruption of the academy, this doesn’t matter. Football has, for a variety of reasons that I will point to in just a moment, been the most contentious of these sports for academics and for the public at large and, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann puts it some people just have a college football gene, while others do not. There is overlap in the fan bases, but NFL and NCAAF are consistently among the most popular television events in the country–not to mention that fantasy sports are a billion dollar industry that the leagues are trying so hard to get into themselves that the NBA commissioner has spoken openly about legalizing gambling on sports. The sports are popular. I grew up watching and playing sports and often find that watching sports is the only activity I can focus on at the end of a long day of writing, even if I want to read a good book. But sports are also big businesses, government-sanctioned monopolies, and, like many other big businesses, they rise above moral ambivalence into the realm of moral bankruptcy.

The popularity of both the NFL and the NCAA are really only rivaled by their corruption. The NFL has, arguably, been in the worse straights of the two over the course of the past year. There was scandal surrounding Ray Rice’s punching of his fiancé, caught on elevator video, that the NFL so thoroughly butchered in its handling that Rice could reasonably claim to be a victim; another incident with Adrian Peterson’s “disciplining” his children, the NFL 49ers relationship with local police such that one helped cover up a domestic abuse issue, which is just part of the NFL’s domestic abuse epidemic. The league has also been under fire for years for its failure to address its concussion problem and it has a collective bargaining agreement created such that the players who are literally placing their health on the line every week have only minimally guaranteed contracts. In comparison (not exactly a contrast), the NCAA allows schools to offer non-guaranteed scholarships to players and has created a business model where the schools and the institution profit from the players’ likenesses. Under the curtain of “amateurism” these players are minimally paid (though not in real money), work full-time schedules, while also being expected to be full-time students and cannot have agents or sell autographs or memorabilia without being made ineligible, which, for most, is a major hurdle to actually reaching the professional ranks and profit from the skills they spent the majority of their young lives honing.

[note: I am not here to vilify everyone affiliated with the institutions, since many, if not most, are probably funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring individuals; the same cannot be said of the institutions and what they support. To wit, the NCAA just restored previously vacated wins for a former PSU coach who was at best negligent when it came to an extended issue of child abuse.]

I am not here to debate which of the two is more moral or a better experience. People spend a great deal of time griping about the problems with sports and how much money athletes make, even though, by nearly every account, athletes in every sport make too little of the money. But why might people prefer college football to the NFL, even though the injury issues of football are the same at every level? There are many reasons, including the lack of a local professional team, but I think there is something a little more subtle, that is the difference between Tithonus and Ganymede.

Sports are considered a young person’s activity. They consist of games of physicality, conditioning and skill. Even for those physical marvels whose bodies are big, fast, and strong enough to play on the highest level, their bodies peak in their mid-twenties. Most are done with the game by their early thirties and those who played into their forties are few and far between. No NFL player has ever played past fifty. Aging curves for other activities are far different and there are only a few where the highest proportion of any age group practicing it is in elementary school–for instance, learning the alphabet. Playing sports is a young man’s game any way you cut it, and there is an almost unconscious association of those few who go pro with doing a youthful activity. The emotions of watching sports as a child also burn brighter, and it is easy to recall youthful impressions of players and have athletes as childhood heroes.

Now for Tithonus and Ganymede. Both are figures from Greek mythology and they are the two paradigms for immortality. Tithonus was the human lover of Eos (Dawn), who is immortal and therefore fearful of watching her beloved grow old and die. Therefore she appealed to Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, but forgets to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus ages in perpetuity and shrivels into immobile, inconstant old age, and eventually becomes a cicada. In contrast, Ganymede is abducted by Zeus and becomes the cupbearer of the gods because Zeus granted him both immortality and eternal youth. In this metaphor, the NCAA system is Ganymede, the NFL Tithonus, while the audience is the older figure who wants the beloved to last forever. The individual players themselves age, grow old, and retire, as do all people, but the players on college teams are perpetually youthful and it is possible to forget that the same injuries that ravage their bodies in the pro game are already taking place, but the effects don’t appear until they have moved on to a different league. New players come into the professional league, but when players leave it is because they are done with the game.

This is not a rational decision to prefer one paradigm to another, and neither is it a moral judgement, an indictment of players, or analysis of the styles of how the game is played. It is merely an attempt to articulate one of pieces of underlying infrastructure that appeals about college athletics.

The Academic Scandal at UNC


Tegularius beheld the landscape and, lo,
corruption of college athletics sat,
a plague upon the land.

Once pristine halls of learning,
overflowing with the bounty
of peerless intellect and civic virtue,
now wept from open sores,
tears of brawn.

Former monks of the mind,
they of keen vision, untroubled
by brutish pangs of flesh,
now brought low by the base distractions
of the masses.

The NCAA stalks their halls.

As many people have probably heard, there has been a scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill where, over the course of two decades thousands of students, about half of whom were athletes, took “paper classes” or “independent studies” and received disproportionately high grades. What happened was wrong and a failure on the level of pedagogy, administration, and ethics and there is going to be hell to pay on account of it. But there is altogether too much self-righteous finger-wagging going on right now at what is being construed as “the problems of big-money college athletics.” There are problems with college athletics, and there are problems with what happened at UNC, but the two do not completely overlap.

Some basics, taken from the executive summary of the report.

  1. An administrative assistant in the African American studies program, now retired, with the best wishes of the department chair developed the idea of “paper courses.”
  2. The students enrolled in these courses did not have to attend lectures or meet with a professor, but just turned in a term paper.
  3. The assistant “graded” the papers herself, usually reading only the introduction and conclusion, allowing for a significant amount of fluff or plagiarism. She then assigned disproportionately high grades.
  4. The grades artificially buoyed the GPA of many students, which allowed many athletes to stay academically eligible.
  5. thousands of students benefitted from the program, 48% of whom were athletes and half of those athletes were football or basketball players.

The report, or at least the summary is well worth reading. The news coverage has focused on how members of the athletics staff directed struggling student-athletes to the program to keep them eligible and how the students received excellent grades for shoddy or plagiarized work and one that (sort of) finds it troubling that the UNC officials are “eager” to pass the problem off as an sports one rather than an academic one.

My issue with this characterization is that the courses were open to all students. Athletes made up a huge percentage of the enrollment compared to their percentage of the student body, but the courses were not primarily intended to keep student-athletes eligible. In fact, the courses were designed to help types of at-risk and struggling students: sexual assault victims, people with mental illness, underprepared student-athletes, and students from challenging backgrounds. Although the assistant was described as a passionate supporter of UNC athletics, the inspiration came from her experience as a student where the professors (in her mind) unfairly catered to the “best and the brightest” of the students, leaving everyone else to struggle though. The department chair who took a lax approach to the independent study courses evidently also sympathized with the plight of student athletes because of two of his former students were expelled for academic reasons. One was murdered shortly after expulsion. The other went to jail.

Once the word got out about the program, institutions within the school such as fraternities and athletics departments took advantage of the classes in large numbers, with the result that many fraternity members “accidentally” minored in African American studies–something that the administrative assistant did not like, but wasn’t something that could stop without putting an end to the entire program.

I should reiterate: this is a failure of academics, administration, oversight, ethics, etc, etc. BUT: the students who the programs were designed to help are the students most in need of help and are often left behind by academic programs for cultural, environmental, and institutional reasons. This does not justify what happened, but neither is this only an example of corruption spreading from college athletics into the academy. There are blame and failures to go around, and the exploitation of a deeply flawed, but well-meaning system is not limited to the athletic department. The intent was to keep students enrolled so that they could benefit from the promise of a better life provided by college.

In fact, what troubles me the most is that those same people who the designers of the program intended to help remain at risk, while people who didn’t necessarily need the help benefited from it. There needs to be systemic overhaul on account of what went down, but imagining the academy as a virtuous entity, its integrity encroached upon by money-sports are willfully ignorant and are using the athletics as a scapegoat. Too, this vitriol is often a product simply of not liking sports. Thus they try to sever the connection between athletics and sports. There are a number of problems, but one of the big ones is not the relationship of money-sports with the academy, but the relationship more broadly of money with the academy.

Let me conclude with this. I have an extreme dislike of the rhetoric about democracy, but one of its core principles is an equal opportunity for education. At-risk and underprepared students, whether they are athletes, from inner cities, from poor backgrounds, non-native english speakers, or have mental health problems, are the hardest to ensure that right for and are the ones in need of most support. UNC’s program is not the answer, particularly because it circumvented learning rather than enabling it. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, support staff–as well as legislators who fund college systems–need to create an environment in which any person who wants an education can get one. Of course it isn’t that simple. Students need to be proactive about their own learning and professors need to be more open to helping underprepared students, but it starts with the environment.

–I am also interested to hear other reactions to this story. The athletics angle is pretty well covered by the national media, but I am willing to hear out the case that athletics are the real problem here.

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.