07 February 2010


The American Scene | Matt Feeney | Super Bowl Sunday Sports Post!

In his Friday column, Brooks cites “a fascinating essay” by Duke professor Michael Allen Gillespie on sports as “moral education,” and then performs a weird detour in which he thinks he’s rebutting or correcting Gillespie’s argument while actually confirming it. Gillespie spells out three dominant models of sport-as-moral-education in western history – Greek (individualized contests oriented toward instilling aristocratic virtues in participants), Roman (spectacles intended to legitimize the government, indifferent to participants), and British (rule- and team-oriented games meant to forge an imperial ruling class).

Gillespie argues, in Brooks’s words, that American college sports have historically represented a “fusion of these three traditions,” but “have [now] become too Romanized” – long seasons, huge stadiums, a “gladiator class” of athletes largely unconnected to the students they represent, coaches willing to break rules to satisfy fans and boosters. Gillespie wants to scale down college athletics to reconnect them with their original purpose as tools of moral education.
On one hand, I agree with Gillespie that modern athletics have become overly "Romanized."  It's really a little absurd how many resources go into college and professional football.  On the other hand, I love football.  Besides stadium subsidies and various budgetary shenanigans at state universities to funnel money to the ADs, both of which happen to be fairly popular with the populace and both of which I would like to see ended, most of the money spent on "Big Sports" is private, so it's really none of my business.

Another complication is that virtually no amount of "scaling down" of college football is going to result in a meaningful increase in the moral education of college students.  What are we going to do?  Say Notre Dame knocked down half their stadium and only 40,000 people go to watch games in person.  Say they refused to televise their games.  Say they only played away games within 500 miles, spent less on practice facilities and didn't recruit outside of the Midwest.  How much more moral education would the 80 guys on the team get?  How much more moral education would the other 8000 undergrads at ND get?

The way to couple moral education isn't to scale down the big-ticket programs, it's to ramp up the little ones.  And I don't even mean the less popular varsity sports.  Those are still relatively big and limited to a tiny fraction of the student body.  You want more programs like ND's full-contact intramural football league and the Bengal Bouts boxing program.  Those are programs that are open to anybody willing to compete.

In other sports-and-morality news, the Olympics are coming.  Their ancient prototypes are of course the epitome of Gillespie's Greek model of sports, but I think the modern Olympics have strayed in two different directions, neither of them palatable to me.

Firstly, the Olympics are much too nationalistic for me these days.  You have grandiose things like Canada's "Own the Podium" program, which are just as wasteful as building giant golden statues to glorify your city.  Why does it matter to me if the fastest luger (lugist?) in the world comes from the same side of a line on a map as I do?  I want to see human achievement, human excellence, the limits of humanity being pushed.  I don't care who issues the athlete's damn passports.

In contrast to that overly-nationalist streak there's also an overly-sentimentalized subtext you can't get away from.  I think the achievements of Olympians are grand and laudable in their own right.  It's enough for me that someone threw a discus 70 meters.  I don't need them to also have a father who's dying of cancer or have been hit by a car and needed rehab to walk when they were little.  Leave that Dr Phil stuff alone; the sports is enough for me.

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