It wasn't a good weekend. The Iowa Hawkeyes got pasted by Penn State, their seventh or eighth consecutive Big 10 loss. Then, the Packers, who started off against the Bears as if they'd hit 100, fumbled a couple of passes and simply disintegrated.
In high school, back in ye olden days, I was a four-sport athlete, even chosen by the coaches as "Athlete of the Year-1966," I remember. Got myself some cuff links and a good strong round of applause from the entire student body, sweet adulation. I think I know sports and it's joys, it's community, it's emotional and physical requirements. I remember giving my all in ball games and track meets--and I remember all of that very fondly.
I also remember little else from high school because athletics came to dominate my life. Not until I got to college did an English teacher--my first, first semester--remark vividly on my ability to write. In high school, I suppose, I simply didn't let my light shine--or else it wasn't seen. What was seen, of course, was my abilities with a discus or on third base or whatever.
I've got enough ex-jock in me to know I can't get rid of it. My weekend soured greatly because of two football losses. I try to work out daily because there's still something of the gym rat in me. Yesterday, after lifting weights, I watched the basketball team going through some drills, felt my own knees trying to jump, almost instinctively when a shot went up.
And I didn't oppose football here at the college where I teach. I played football. I've watched the Packers since I was young enough to distinguish green from gold. I've been a loyal Hawk fan ever since we moved to Iowa--more than thirty years. There were good reasons for our playing football at this college, and I wasn't agin' it.
But that doesn't mean that I don't recognize, even within myself, the negative effects of addiction or worship or whatever you want to call it. And that doesn't mean I don't recognize the way in which institutions of higher education can go awhoring after big-time athletics. And that doesn't mean I don't recognize a trend--every last college in our region of the country who has given up the ghost in the past two decades (from Midwestern, to Yankton, to Westmar) has faced the same image in its dying throes--the only students left on campus are scholarship athletes, who, everybody knows, wouldn't be there if it wouldn't be for the playing fields.
And that's what scared me about more than 100 players--junior varsity--at Morningside, when our first football opponent took the field several weeks ago. That school has a lower enrollment that we do, and they have hundreds of football players, in part because scholarships are simply an essential part of marketing any college today--or at least most of them, and certainly this one.
So yesterday's headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that massive donations to college and university athletic programs likely diminish gifts to the institutions themselves. "As the country's biggest athletics departments have sought ways to pay for multimillion-dollar facility expansions, coaches' salaries, and other rising costs, their fund-raising operations have experienced enormous growth. But contributions to sports programs are eating up an ever-larger share of donations to colleges."
Could anyone be surprised?
Who's at fault? Not the coaches--they're doing the best they can. I'm sure administrators would say they too are doing the best they can: if faculty want warm bodies in the classroom chairs, then we've got to give the kids what they want--and they want sports. They too are doing the best they can.
All over the country, people with money are putting their bucks into what they value, right? They want athletics too. Even at a college like this one--relative youthful, religiously conservative, still quite deeply denominiationally bound--who really cares about the new hire in sociology?--or even in theology? Do alums give a hoot? What they see in the paper--when they see anything at all--is the sports scores.
Woe and woe and woe. I'm not sure this is the death throes of Western civilization, but the moment we seem to give up the ghost for the sake of athletic endeavor, I do believe that something significant is lost because here, on the edge of the Great Plains, where great hordes of people have been leaving for more than a century, where the weather is hardly compelling and the amenities aren't rich, colleges and universities out here who give up their heritage and their calling tend to blow away in prairie winds that never do.
I really do like the athletes I teach. I recognize myself in them. I want them to succeed. But to my value system, success means weaning them away from the worship that athletics often require, turning them from gym rats into thoughtful men and women who recognize that the world's compelling questions and problems have little or nothing to do with whether Bret Favre pulled another game out in the dying moments of the fourth quarter.
The highest paid state employee here in Iowa is Coach Ferentz, of the Iowa Hawkeyes. He's now flopped for most of two seasons. If things don't change, he's going to be history. The pirannha around the state are already roiling the waters. But if he goes, the U of I will just get someone else who will cost more. And the pirannha will transform into a school of minnows.
And the beat goes on. Somewhere along the line, I guess I lost the cuff links. I'll probably never forget the sweet adulation.