Let’s Talk a Little about Sports in American Life

1. To those of you outside the United States who are curious: we do not just have professional sports leagues like the NFL and NBA. Nor are there just minor league teams, like the farm teams each associated with a Major League Baseball team.

No, we also have collegiate athletics. There are plenty of student-athletes who work hard for their grades and accomplishment in their sport. Some of the competition yields Olympians in things like fencing and track.

However, there’s also the spectacle of college football and basketball. Both sports attract large fan bases and some of the players make it into the NFL and NBA. There’s an enormous amount of money to be made and none of it has anything to do with education. The universities that participate are technically non-profit, enjoying some rather nice tax exemptions. The labor is unpaid and is often notorious for caring about things other than classes. Not so long ago, a booster (someone who gives money and support to a sports program) at the University of Miami acknowledged that he paid for prostitutes for football players. Visit that link and you can see a picture of the school’s president accepting a check from him.

Some argue that the money a university makes through sports goes into their educational mission. It’s safe to say there’s enough corruption and fudged numbers that it’s hard to determine. There’s every incentive to hide any deficit the Athletics Department might have. Safe to say, winning programs make money, losing programs not so much.

I’d like to tell you this sort of thing is confined to “sports factory” schools, but think about the fact that “sports factory” is a term I can use for an institution of higher education which makes sense to you. That tells you a lot about where our values lie. Tax shelters for rich administrators, bread and circuses for everyone, a complete breakdown in what an education means. More on this in a second.

2. Josh sent me two links recently which only make a call for reform that much more potent. The problem, as you probably intuit, is much larger than very profitable (for some) college sports. The city of Oakland in California just fired 25% of its police force, even as it is the 5th most crime-ridden city in the nation. It did not touch the money – $17 million – it gives the Oakland Raiders.

You could say, “haha, that’s Oakland,” but that’s again missing the bigger picture. In the United States of America, the NFL is a non-profit:

In the eyes of the IRS, the National Football League is considered a nonprofit outfit. Just like the United Way. Read that again. The NFL — a league that makes roughly $9 billion in revenue per season and will collected [sic] a guaranteed $27 billion in television money over the next decade — enjoys the same tax breaks as, say, your local chamber of commerce, because both are classified as 501(c)6 organizations.

The article I got that information about the NFL from is so important I’ll link it again. It is true the NFL and its various franchises are paying some taxes. However, there’s an enormous amount that is tax deductible and a lot of information that can’t be accessed. For more discussion about how professional teams operate: “Let’s Eliminate Sports Welfare.”

3. At this point you’re probably thinking “those Americans have a really unhealthy obsession with sports.” I’m not sure about this. Yes, there are some grotesque examples of hooliganism: fans of school teams and professional teams who curse and taunt and fight during games, riot after games. Still, fan awfulness in soccer/football globally is very hard to top.

I don’t know how obsessive we are as the American people. I think this: a few are really into sports and a few are really profiting. For most of us, sports are a default – there aren’t any new episodes of Adventure Time on; maybe we’re tired of practicing guitar. We’ll flip channels and watch someone throw a pass.

My guess is that if you say to someone “hey, your tax dollars are going for so-and-so’s new stadium” and give them a magic button to stop the flow of those dollars, they’ll hit that button the majority of the time. Even die-hard fans will probably say the tax base shouldn’t be burdened with what they love privately.

Still, one can imagine plenty of people going “meh” because they’ve got other things to do and think about. Right now, complacency favors the entrenched interest, even as we are undergoing a terrible recession where states are taking federal money for welfare and using it to patch other holes in their budget.

4. The genius of the American system, though, is that all you have to do is get a representative of some sort to make this his cause. Most really do care about governing well (fiscal cliff shenanigans notwithstanding). They don’t want to be remembered as a stooge of corporate interests or ideologues who couldn’t work with or for anyone. That’s where awareness and saying “hey, stop sports welfare” over and over come in. Give the idea enough cultural currency and the fix will follow.

There’s a bit more that isn’t quite an addendum. When we throw all these resources into sports at the collegiate level, we lose a lot in terms of education. It’s not clear that we create literate citizens at the university level:

A 2006 study from the American Institutes for Research found that only 31 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees are proficient in “prose literacy”–being able to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, for example.

We throw a lot of resources into sports. Again, I don’t know we do this consciously. To argue against those misplaced resources, in my mind, is a boon to the humanities. I don’t quite agree with everything Bill James says here, but his focus on the obvious shouldn’t be neglected:

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes’ success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they’re still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

We might be a bit better at identifying and rewarding achievement and diversity in the sciences. We can certainly encourage people to do more hands-on things like shop. But anyone who argues that we read or write too much, spend too much time preserving and evaluating the past, thinking about how best to express ourselves – anyone who says that is an idiot. You would think with all the writing and speaking on the Internet we’d have a more literate generation than ever before. I think a lot of people try and create some wonderful content. Imagine what they could create in a world that took literature, philosophy, history seriously.

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