Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Big Time College Sports and Our Idea of Higher Education


Maybe it’s because I live in the heartland of the Southeastern Conference (where the only real football is played), but I find the South Carolina/Steve Spurrier controversy Michael linked yesterday to be absolutely fascinating.  Coverage of these disputes in the press tends to follow an old (and tired) line, casting those who cling to decent admissions standards as the heroes and the coach as the villain.  Things are not quite that simple, however.     

If you polled USC alums regarding the controversy, I would be shocked if most didn’t vehemently support the “old ball coach.”  And it’s not just because they only care about football.  At bottom, they have a different view of higher education than most members of the higher ed establishment.  For the vast majority, college is a rite of passage and credentialing process, not primarily an “educational experience.”  They see little value in knowledge for its own sake and instead seek the information and qualifications they need to pursue their careers.  In addition, college has tremendous social importance.  It’s where we meet spouses, forge lifelong friendships, and make important contacts.  Especially at the state schools, college football (in part because it is just so much fun to watch) is a big part of the social experience, one that continues for generations, draws future students to the school, and bonds entire communities.     

Under this social/vocational approach to college, the “student-athletes” get tremendous benefits.  In addition to getting access to the college credentialing process (when they may not otherwise qualify), no one makes better and more useful contacts for a future career than a big-time college athlete.  With any shrewdness, these contacts can be leveraged into a career even if they don’t go on to the NFL.  Sure, they may not spend much time reading Camus, but productive and prosperous citizens don’t have to read Camus.

But this social/vocational model is an anathema to many educators – especially those educators who see their role as enlightening young minds, transforming lives with the joy of learning, etc. etc. Obviously a healthy culture needs some number of students who take a real interest in Camus (or better yet, Burke), but does it need 13 million (or so) every four years?  Certainly not.  Moreover, if there is any subculture in which there is a critical mass of individuals who “love learning,” it is our colleges and universities – which are hardly a model for economic efficiency or even intellectual freedom.  We do need “thinkers,” but we need a heck of a lot more accountants, salesmen, bankers, and brokers.  And the institutions they run function much better (as a rule) than those run by the intelligentsia.   

So . . . for the love of capitalism, economic efficiency, and anti-elitism, we must all stand with Steve Spurrier against the tyranny of the academic elite.   

Wait a minute.  I’m a Kentucky football fan.  I don’t like Spurrier’s Gamecocks.   

How dare Steve Spurrier threaten the academic integrity of a flagship state school!  Those students were rightfully turned away.  And on behalf of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I would like to extend an invitation to visit UK’s beautiful Lexington campus.  I’m sure we could admit you without any compromise at all.   


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