John Havelock: College sports as industry comes north

By JOHN HAVELOCKAugust 16, 2013 

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is attributed by many historians to the deployment of "bread and circuses ("circenses" translates as "games") as a way of distracting the public with amusements, so sound public policy or services are left to the whims of power elites. The historians' judgment on Rome seems a snug fit for the United States. The public rejects political affairs in disgust yet embraces baseball, basketball, football and, (in the case of Alaska and other pockets of enlightenment) hockey, each to a level of detailed understanding comparable only to a handful of political groupies. What the public fails to realize is how injurious this preference is for the country as a whole.

We live in a world of industry, science, invention, technology and leadership all requiring high levels of education and commitment. Yet, we nod in approval as the University at Anchorage invests its funds, energies and priorities in sports arenas, professional coaches, travel and recruitment of athletes. Proposals to expanded medical and law centers are left at the wayside. A losing hockey team arouses the attention of the governor, the university president and the Anchorage campus chancellor in dramatic lock step. Fairbanks snickers in quiet approval as that much smaller campus retains the lion's share of PhD programs and high tech research. Alaska's preference for sports circuses is unexceptional. UAA is just trying to catch up with the USA.

Professional sports, outside America, are left to a sports industry. No European (and we might guess Chinese) university places such an emphasis on the success of athletic teams. In the USA, the sports industry's junior leagues are nurtured on the college campus as an income activity of the university, exploiting the athletes through a monopolistic arrangement called the NCAA which assures that student workers gain no profit from the intercollegiate system.

Rather, student athletes are abused by the system. It has long been known that the concussions common in football and hockey, from high school on (and endemic in boxing), can lead to permanent brain injury. Limb and joint injuries lead to pain and physical limitation in later years. Financial abuse of athletes is also characteristic. A law suit was filed recently asking why colleges and the NCAA should profit from selling cartooned figures of their student athletes to an electronic game manufacturer. A coach can make good money marketing his autobiography but a collegiate football star can permanently lose his place with the team if he sells his autograph.

The nation's children cheer for sports heroes; millions are deluded into thinking that professional sports careers are within reach, boys especially committing their time to a sport over academic studies. Glorification goes to the star athlete while the scholastic high scorers are- well, don't we call them "nerds?" (But hurrah for UAA's debaters.) When is someone going to say, "UAA needs a football team?"

Football seems to be replacing baseball as the national sport, reflecting America's tilt to military solutions. Teams of gladiators fight over territory, the Pentagon coaches on the sidelines. Tank-like tackles clash over the line while the field commander uses his tactical air force to gain territory when the land game is stalled. With sports analogies so firmly in place, no wonder that president George W. Bush celebrated a "win" in a war not won and that the coaches puzzle why fielding tens of thousands of gifted military athletes has so little effect in bringing insurgencies to an end in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The decline of intra-collegiate programs was an early casualty of the triumph of sports professionalization. Collegiate sports were originally intended to provide entertaining, physical exercise to a student body otherwise committed to academic endeavor. The organization of many high-school and college sports is exclusively for those who aspire to excel. While intra-collegiate athletics are still around, truly amateur sports have shrunk to near invisibility.

The concern for student health and disillusionment with the NCAA management may be shifting the paradigm nationally. What happens in Alaska depends on the political attention of the Alaska electorate.

John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general who lettered in wrestling in high school.

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