By Allen L. Sack (ND class of 1967)
In Counterfeit Amateurs, Allen L. Sack, a member of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team and a long-time college professor and sports activist, presents his take on how to repair what he sees as the creeping professionalism of college sports.
AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 3
Some Observations on College Football Then and Now
Although it was often difficult to reconcile the demands of football with the demands of being a college student in the 1960s, I feel extremely lucky to have played at a time when universities and the NCAA still treated athletes as students rather than as professional entertainers. The freshman ineligibility rule helped me get off to a good start academically and drove home the point that universities were institutions of higher learning, not specialized training camps for the pros. That Notre Dame had made a four-year financial commitment to me, even if I fell short of coaches’ expectations on the playing field, reinforced my awareness that the school was committed to me as a student. Athletes lived in the same dorms and attended the same classes that other students did.
In the 1960s, playing college football did not require that athletes be cut off from the general student body, including that segment that placed a high value on what Hofstadter referred to as the “life of the mind.” In recent years, however, college education for athletes has been redefined in narrow vocational terms. What passes for education in some athletic programs is being dragged half-asleep from class to class by an army of academic counselors whose job it is to keep athletes eligible. Athletes attend mandatory study hall, often take classes that have little academic substance, and study in athletic counseling centers that are segregated from the rest of the student body. Academic life for athletes has become as regimented as their life on the playing field, making it difficult for them to explore new ideas or take advantage of opportunities for personal growth.
Not long ago I visited an academically prestigious university in Connecticut that provides quite a bit of counseling support for athletes. I was somewhat taken aback, however, to hear that all varsity athletes, regardless of grade point average, had to attend mandatory study hall in a facility housed in the very center of the athletic complex. “What about highly motivated students who would prefer to study in the library, or with friends, or at Starbucks with their laptops and a chai tea?” I asked. I was told that the athletic learning center had computer and other resources that were comparable to if not better than those in the library or elsewhere on campus. The notion that some athletes might prefer to study in solitude or with other students did not seem to be popular among athletic staff, for whom academic life, like everything else in the game plan, has to be managed closely if teams are going to win.
The Notre Dame-Michigan State game during my senior year was a harbinger of the rampant commercialism that was about to invade college campuses and collegiate athletic programs. Yet, compared with today, college football in the 1960s was still tethered, albeit tenuously, to its amateur moorings. Universities had not yet sold their athletic programs to companies like Nike and Reebok to be used as marketing platforms. Ara [Parseghian] and the other coaches had some business deals on the side, but they were modest ventures compared to those of today’s celebrity coaches. Televised football games on weeknights were still unthinkable, as were multibilliondollar rights fees for basketball. Even on the weekends, the only nationally televised college football game was the NCAA “Game of the Week.” There was no Bowl Championship Series, and the bowls were not yet named after corporate sponsors.
Since 1966 Notre Dame has built a college football television empire. NBC Sports pays millions of dollars to televise all of Notre Dame’s home games nationally and recently renewed the contract, worth $9 million a year, through 2010. The away games are shown by ABC, CBS, and ESPN. As a member of the Big Ten, Michigan State football has also become a media giant. In 2006 the Big Ten Conference announced the creation of its own television network, which involves a twenty-year deal with the Fox network. The establishment of the Big Ten Channel in 2007 was inspired by the growth of regional networks like YES, which is owned by the New York Yankees. The Big Ten also has a contract with ESPN worth about $100 million a year for football and basketball and adds offerings to ESPN’s broadband, cell phone, Internet, and video-on-demand business.
John Huarte, the quarterback of Notre Dame’s 1964 football team, won the Heisman Trophy. I remember congratulating him and shaking his hand in the locker room when the decision was announced. This was a really big thing. But the thought of promoting his Heisman Trophy candidacy by investing $250,000 in a gigantic billboard in New York’s Times Square had not yet occurred to anyone. In 2001 the University of Oregon did just that when it paid for a billboard that was a hundred feet tall and eighty feet wide to promote quarterback Joey Harrington for the Heisman. The billboard, which was ten stories high, displayed a likeness of Harrington with his last name crossed out, graffiti style, so that the name appeared as “Joey Heisman.” Huarte was a celebrity and he attracted a great deal of attention. But in 1966, universities still showed some restraint when it came to marketing athletes as commercial properties.
Along with unbridled commercialism has come an assault on academic standards. The gap in admissions standards between athletes and regular students has grown substantially since I left Notre Dame. In their groundbreaking study The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, James Shulman and William Bowen focused on ninety thousand undergraduate students—athletes and others±—who entered a total of thirty academically selective colleges and universities, including Notre Dame, at three points in time: the fall semesters of 1951, 1976, and 1989. They found that the gap in admissions standards and academic performance between athletes and nonathletes has been broadening at Division I institutions. At Ivy League and selective liberal arts colleges, athletes must still meet high academic standards, but even there the gap between students and athletes is increasing.
When universities sell their athletic programs to corporate sponsors and television networks, attracting marquee athletes who can fill stadiums and increase television ratings often takes priority over whether an athlete actually belongs in college. Several years ago the president of St. Bonaventure overruled his admissions staff to declare a basketball player eligible to compete, even though the athlete had received a degree in welding rather than an associate’s degree. The scandal eventually led to the suicide of the chairman of St. Bonaventure’s board of trustees. This is an extreme case of how the pressure to win can distort academic priorities and lead to tragic consequences for a fine university and its constituents. It also suggests that market values are beginning to undermine the core intellectual and moral values that have traditionally been the bedrock of higher learning.
Faculty members also feel the pressure. The New York Times reported recently that an Auburn football player had been honored as a scholar-athlete for his work in sociology. When the chairman of the Auburn Sociology Department—who had never heard of the student or had him in class—checked his file, however, he found that this football player and seventeen others had received high grades from a professor who required no classroom attendance and little work. As a result of this fraudulent grade inflation, several Auburn players who were academically at risk were able to compete on a team that went undefeated and finished number two in the nation in 2004. Athlete-friendly faculty are nothing new. Their numbers appear to be increasing, however, as they have become the primary release valve for the pressure-cooker world of corporate college sports.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, many universities are adopting standard business practices to ensure their financial viability. Students have become customers, academic programs are now referred to as products, and academic departments are increasingly being evaluated in terms of their contribution to the bottom line. In this new entrepreneurial environment, commercialized college sports, with its emphasis on marketing, promotion, and revenue generation, seems more in line with the direction of higher education than with the traditional view of a university as a community of scholars insulated from the contaminating influence of external pressures. In this era of academic capitalism, high-profile athletic teams are presumed to give universities an edge in attracting new students, creating revenue streams, and generally enhancing a university’s brand name. Academic compromises for athletes are tolerated as long as they don’t dilute the brand.