It's Not All Fun and Games

Author: Michael Oriard '70

The rules have changed for college athletes who represent their schools on fields of play.

By Michael Oriard ’70

I played football at Notre Dame in the late 1960s without making a single academic sacrifice. My daily schedule during the season was a spartan one — classes, practice, dinner and game film, several hours in the library, sleep — but it was manageable. It also, I should confess, was aided by my lack of any social life in the all-male environment of ND in those years.

Football season ran from late August to Thanksgiving, extending to New Year’s only in my senior year, when Notre Dame accepted a bowl bid for the first time in 45 years. In the off-seasons, I lifted weights three times a week — workouts were optional and self-regulated — and was less organized in my study habits because I had more free time. In summers, I returned home to Spokane, where I earned my living expenses for the coming year and ran or lifted weights after work. I became a starter during my junior season and was co-captain as a senior. I left Notre Dame in 1970 with the best education the University could offer me, as well as a full college experience. I should add that I had arrived as a walk-on, with a primary focus on my education, but whether they took advantage of them or not, my teammates with scholarships had the same opportunities.

I fear that my experience may no longer be possible at the Division I level today. I view the football world now from the perspective of a PAC-10 university, where I have taught American literature for 26 years and written several books about the role of sports in American culture. I know that the NCAA limits the time athletes can be required to put into football to 20 hours a week in season, eight hours a week out of season, but I also know that “voluntary” weight-training and film sessions make those rules a bad joke. The football season was always grueling, but now it is closer to a full-time, year-round job. Coaches even want (require) their players to remain on campus during summers to be available for more “unofficial” and “voluntary” conditioning. Because classes cannot be scheduled if they interfere with practices, options for majors are limited.

I’m not just an aging ex-jock who views my youth through a rosy nostalgic haze. As a football historian, I know that sports for more than a century have been the contradiction at the heart of the American university: the extracurricular activities of students staged as public spectacles generating millions of dollars. I know that big-time football stopped being a game played primarily by ordinary students who simply turned out for the school team — gosh, coach, just give me a chance to play — as soon as it mattered who won and lost. I know that many universities were built in part on their football programs, and that the football team — and later the basketball team — created the bond between universities and their students, alumni and communities. I know that universities were guilty of using “tramp athletes” (paid nonstudents) in the 1880s and that “scholar-athlete” has been too often a misnomer ever since. Yet as recently as my own playing days at Notre Dame, it was still possible to be a full-time student and a fully committed athlete at the highest level, a combination almost inconceivable today.

Neither universities nor young athletes have dictated the change, but both have adjusted to the demands of an increasingly commercialized sports culture. I grew up with the “game of the week” on television; my kids grew up with 24-hour sports and the highlights of every game on SportCenter. My generation, as kids, played whatever sport was in season, at our schools or local parks, and we continued to play them in high school, then in college, as long as we were good enough and still enjoyed playing. Kids today are pressured to commit to one sport while in grade school. Elite teams of sixth-grade basketball players, drawn from entire metropolitan or regional areas, travel hundreds of miles to tournaments throughout the season and the summer. Some of the best of them show up strutting in uniforms and warm-ups provided by Nike or Adidas. Would-be superstars hone their skills at summer camps run by college coaches, who begin tracking prospects in junior high. The entire system culminates in the meat-market summer high-school basketball tournaments in Orlando or Las Vegas where all of the recruiting now takes place. Young football players have their summer camps, too, as well as their countless hours in the weight room, where those 300-pound linemen and 250-pound backs are manufactured.

For my generation, college football or basketball was the pinnacle, with a few players continuing on to the pros. For young elite athletes today, everything is preparation for the NFL or NBA. With the astronomical salaries now common for those who play professionally, the sacrifices of full-time, year-round college sports may be worth it. I wonder, however, about the costs and benefits for the majority who fall short of the ultimate goal. While the salaries of coaches in top college programs now start in the million-dollar range, an athletic scholarship is worth exactly what it was worth in my day: tuition, fees, room and board, and a bit of spending money. Unfortunately, what a scholarship now buys, in terms of education and college experience, I fear has markedly depreciated. Academic support programs within athletic departments are most effective in helping marginal students maintain their eligibility and progress toward graduation. Those capable of higher academic goals face constant pressure to take the easy way.

Moreover, the football and basketball model prevails throughout the athletic department. Gender equity means, among other things, the ironic right to the same level of commitment demanded in football and men’s basketball; the status of “minor” or “nonrevenue” sports is raised by increasing the demands on the athletes in a similar manner. Here, of course, full-time, year-round commitment comes without the compensation of huge professional contracts for even a few.

I know that a balance between athletics and academics remains possible, because my son, Colin, has it. Basketball takes about three hours of his day, and practices during final exams are optional. Games are played on Friday and Saturday nights to minimize missed class time, with an occasional Tuesday game due to the odd number of teams in his conference (he leaves for the game after classes on Tuesday and returns immediately after it ends). Even national tournament games are played back-to-back on Fridays and Saturdays (in his three seasons he’s been to the tournament three times, most recently to the round of eight). He works out every day in the off-season, driven not by his coach’s command but by his continuing passion for the game, and like his father 30-odd years ago he works during summers while staying in shape for basketball. Oh, and he’s doing something that even I could not do: As a Hispanic studies major he’s spending this fall semester in Spain and will return in December in time for the conference season.

You’ve likely guessed that Colin plays in Division III. He was a much better athlete than I coming out of high school — first-team All State, averaging 25 points as a senior, a wonderfully skilled low-post player with a soft outside shooting touch as well — but unfortunately he was my size in the wrong sport, 6-6 when Division I post players start at 6-10. Athletic rewards depend, to varying degrees, on talent, hard work and luck. I had been lucky, Colin was not.

But he is better off, right? Well, maybe. I found myself in a strange position during Colin’s senior year in high school: not even certain what to wish for my son. I bled for him as the scholarship he thought he’d earned did not materialize, yet I also knew about the academic sacrifices he would not have to make. The choice was largely out of our hands, but the options to my mind seemed stark: Division I or Division III, top-level basketball or first-class education. An easy choice for a college professor, if not for his basketball-loving son? Only if I would discount the importance of my son’s own dreams.

The heightened professionalization of Division I college sports calls into question the implicit contract between universities and their “student-athletes” that has been in place since before my time. With the dramatic escalation of coaches’ salaries, bowl and tournament revenues and corporate sponsorships — and the growing uncertainty that a big-time college athletic experience is a benefit in today’s highly competitive job market — the issue of athletes’ compensation certainly will return with new urgency to the national agenda. I suspect that the agent for change, however, will eventually come from outside higher education rather than from within: perhaps a decision by network executives in response to declining ratings that in a single stroke will eliminate universities in small TV markets from competition at the highest level, while those remaining become more openly semiprofessional.

With the recent hiring of Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame has reaffirmed a commitment to pursuing national championships while maintaining high academic standards, and over the next five to 10 years we’ll see if that ambition remains feasible. As a football historian, I know that Notre Dame has always charted its own course, rather than conformed to common practices or minimal NCAA rules. Can Notre Dame be a place, as it was for me, where young men and women pursue both athletic dreams and academic priorities? As an alumnus and former player, I hope so.

Michael Oriard is Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University. He was a Sporting News All-american lineman at Notre Dame and played for the Kansas City Chiefs. He is the author of King Football.

Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002