The crux of corruption in college sports is this: A relatively small number of high-profile athletes, isolated in two sports, enjoy scholarships (and perhaps some extracurricular salary) while having a very weak connection to their classrooms. The question is whether these few truly impinge on academic integrity.
I’m not saying the NCAA doesn’t have some serious problems. But there is nothing wrong that can’t be fixed by 18 strong college presidents — that’s how many seats there are on the NCAA executive committee — acting in concert to curb their own worst excesses, and impose stiffer penalties. It’s ludicrous for Gee, now the Ohio State president, to suggest he has no power over football coach Jim Tressel. Gee is an in-demand fundraising wizard and a corporate-board veteran whose leverage at Ohio State is far greater than Tressel’s, as he knows. He can impose discipline on the program any time he wants — and if he did, a lot of other presidents might grow the guts to follow his example.
The connection between sports and campuses is a long-lived one that goes back at least until 1829 and the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race. It’s always been a messy and uncomfortable connection, rife with temptations to cheat, but that’s actually part of what makes it rich and valuable, and it’s worth the exchange.
Intelligence, what little we understand about it, is based on the capacity to grasp relationships of all kinds. Not just the relationship between your own various limbs and skills, but your relationship to the objects around you, and to the people around you, starting with the person Monica Seles liked to refer to as “the other opponent.” It’s about trial and error, mastering direct and indirect stimulus, in order to learn that while you can’t master events, you can at least master yourself.
I don’t know that revenue-sports, basketball and football, are more valuable than any other performance-based learning experience, in which stakes are damn high and the audience brutally demanding. But they’re certainly not less valuable. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once praised sports as “high and dangerous action,” because, “in this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things . . .”
One thing you learn in college is that comfort isn’t the only thing worth seeking. Sometimes the best questions are the ones that make us most uncomfortable.