Smith: Behind America's college football passion

Smith: Behind America's college football passion

January 21st, 2014 Roger Smith in Opinion Columns

Is our national passion for football ruining the game and perhaps ruining higher education as well?

The student athlete in revenue sports like football and basketball, with few exceptions, doesn't exist. Announcers focus on the guy who has a 3.7 GPA majoring in biology, but no one is fooled. Everyone knows the young superstars on the field on Saturday afternoon aren't likely to be superstars or even minimal performers in the classroom on Monday. Just as few athletes can play at elite levels, few students make the grade at elite academic levels. Unfortunately, under the present system, the only route to professional football lies squarely through our elite universities, and professors and coaches create ways to get around academic standards to accommodate this monopoly. The big losers are athletes. They aren't paid, they often can't compete academically either because of ability or time, and they may get injured and never make it to the professional level. Furthermore, the passion to make sure athletes "make the grade" drags down the entire academic community.

Consider this. University of Tennessee at Knoxville Law Professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes (USA Today, Jan 15, 2014, "Higher Ed Sports Lower Standards") that a recent review at the University of North Carolina reported that more than 50 classes taught by the African Studies Department and very popular with athletes did not actually exist. The UNC Chancellor and football coach were fired, and the head of the Department of African Studies is under indictment for fraud. Furthermore a CNN investigation of college athletic programs recently reported that many elite football and basketball athletes are reading at the eighth-grade level!

Hasn't this been going on for years while university officials laugh all the way to the bank? The alumni are happy, TV ratings are sky-high, Title IX sports that enable female athletes to attend elite universities are funded by football revenue, and everyone is happy. The problem is we are destroying our universities by making them entertainment venues. They should exist to advance academic fields that will in turn make our nation and our world a better place to live -- healthier, more peaceful, more fulfilling, and more productive. As Sir Isaac Newton said of his academic peers, "If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants!" A university is where a young man or woman goes to stand on the shoulders of giants; not giants like linemen in the SEC, but giants of academia.

Sadly, the farce of the student athlete is not confined to the field house. Dr. Reynolds cites a recent study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that found that the average student only studies 12-14 hours a week and most of that is in groups. Over half the students do not take courses that require more than 20 pages of writing a semester. Small wonder over 36 percent of college students today show no significant learning increase after four years of college. Colleges play a critical role in our culture especially through research areas in dozens of critical math and science fields. We don't need bigger colleges and universities, but we definitely need healthy colleges and universities that demand accountability to sustain our culture.

We can put accountable students back in college sports, create alternative avenues to professional sports, and avoid "band-aid" solutions like paying athletes, but we've got to change our focus. We bought into the NFL-college football monopoly, and we can walk away. Stop supporting the fraud. Watch our local high school or local college kids play. You'll save a lot and see some great athletes. Don't sit in front of a TV for three hours to watch 17 minutes of action. Take a hike. Go fishing. Get your life back. We should push for a farm team system like minor league baseball. We must think outside the gridiron!

Roger Smith lives in Soddy-Daisy. He is the author of the book "American Spirit" and formerly served as Assistant Professor in the Department of Military Studies at the Air Force Academy.