- Created on Sunday, 12 March 2017 14:00
In previous posts on this blog, I have pled with my alma mater, Syracuse, to stop playing Division I men’s football and basketball. Why? Because universities become so besotted by the money and limelight these programs can generate that they wind up selling their souls.
Universities must succumb to academic fraud to succeed as those sports. There is really no choice. Recruiting only players who are academically qualified places programs at too much of a competitive disadvantage. To succeed at these highly-competitive endeavors, men’s football and basketball programs must recruit from the wider pool that includes both students who do, and do not, have the capacity to perform well academically at their respective universities.
The universities create elaborate academic support programs for their players and delude themselves into believing that, with that support, all of their players legitimately succeed. But academic support programs can do only such much, especially with students who must spend forty hours a week playing, practicing, and training for their sports – not to mention missing classes to travel for distant games.
Two recent New York Times stories provide further evidence of the blindness and decay resulting from chasing dreams of football glory.
The first story is about Baylor University. In 2008, Baylor, which had not had a winning season in thirteen years, decided to pursue football greatness. It hired a new head coach – Art Briles, who had turned around a losing program at Houston University. Baylor paid Briles what was reputed to be of the highest salaries in college sports, and it also spent $266 million for a new football stadium to help him recruit. And behold: Art Briles worked his second miracle! Two years later, Baylor started having winning seasons and going to increasingly prestigious bowl games – Texas Bowl in 2010, Alamo Bowl in 2011, Holiday Bowl in 2012, Fiesta Bowl in 2014, and Cotton Bowl in 2015. Baylor reveled the glory.
But there was a dark underside to the Baylor’s success. Briles did what he needed to do to win, and Baylor deliberately turned a blind eye to his methods. Baylor recruited athletically-talented football players who had been dismissed for disciplinary reasons from other universities. Baylor asked attractive female students – called hostesses – to show prospective recruits a good time on their visits to Baylor. Allegedly, this included having sex with the recruits.
Chickens come home to roost. At least five students (and probably more) claimed they were raped or otherwise sexually abused by Baylor football players during the Briles era. The University knew of these allegations but cruelly turned their back on these women, and sought to keep their allegations secret. Journalists ultimately revealed the ugly truth. The University wound up getting rid of Briles, its athletic director, and its president, Ken Starr (who previously became famous as the Watergate special prosecutor). Baylor’s glory turned to disgrace. In addition to spending $266 million for that new football stadium, Baylor has now spent an estimated $223 million in settlements and legal expenses resulting from lawsuits and an internal investigation.
Though it has had some scandals too, the Rutgers story is mostly about money. Rutgers has never been a sports power – at least not in recent history. But that did not stop it from dreaming. It too hired expensive football coaches. In addition, since 1994 it has spent more than $130 million constructing, expanding, and enhancing its football stadium. In 2012, Rutgers joined the Big Ten Conference. The University announced that this would be a “transformative” event in its history. How has that worked out? According to the New York Times, Rutgers’ athletic department had been consistently running annual deficits of more than $20 million. Its 2016 deficit was $28.6 million. Moreover, that figure does not tell the whole story. The athletic department listed in its 2016 budget “other operating revenue,” which the New York Times discovered was a $10.5 million loan, at 5.75% interest, which will cost $18 million to repay.
Rutgers is a great University. I have a son who did both his undergraduate and graduate work there, and I am grateful for the first-rate education he received. But Rutgers is also a financially-strapped public University, increasingly squeezed by a state. Rutgers: Isn’t it time give up the dreams of football greatness (along with the grim reality of how such dreams are achieved), and redirect your resources to your core mission of education and research?
- Created on Saturday, 17 December 2016 10:31
What are good and evil but the choices made by sentient beings?
It is the obituary of an American hero, Larry Colburn, in today’s New York Times that makes me reflect on this. It is only fitting if Colburn’s name is unfamiliar to you. His is the story an ordinary guy, thrown into horrible circumstances, performing an extraordinary act.
Colburn grew up in Grand Coulee Dam, Washington. He attended Catholic elementary and middle schools and then a public high school. His father died when he was fifteen. Maybe it was the grief and anger over that misfortune that led Colburn into a contretemps with an assistant principal, causing him to be suspended from high school for two weeks. Instead of returning to school, Colburn enlisted in the Army. He was seventeen years old.
This was 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. A year or so later, Colburn found himself manning an M-60 machine gun in a helicopter. He and the other two crew members were hovering over My Lai, a Vietnamese hamlet, in which a battle between American and Vietcong soldiers was believed to be in progress. Their mission was to identify Vietcong positions by drawing enemy fire.
Seeing dead and wounded Vietnamese villagers scattered throughout the village, the helicopter crew dropped flares near the wounded so that American soldiers on the ground could find and aid them. What they saw instead was American soldiers finding and murdering the wounded civilians.
Led by the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the crew landed the helicopter and implored the American company commander, Lieutenant William L. Calley, to stop the massacre. Calley told Thompson to butt out.
Thompson positioned his helicopter between Calley’s platoon and surviving villagers. “Y’all cover me,” Thompson shouted to his crew. “If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them.”
“You got it boss. Consider it done,” responded Colburn.
Thus did three ordinary Americans – the other member of the helicopter crew was Glenn Andreotta – confront a bloodthirsty company of fellow American soldiers who had already killed about five hundred villagers, sometimes after raping them.
Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta coaxed survivors out of hiding. They found an eight-year-old boy clinging to his mother’s corpse in an irrigation ditch. He wouldn’t let go. They grabbed him by the back of his shirt, and together with other Huey gunships that they summoned, flew him and other villagers out of My Lai.
Two months later, journalist Seymour M. Hersh exposed the massacres committed at My Lai and another Vietnamese village. More than a dozen American soldiers were court-martialed. Only one, Calley, was convicted. Although he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering twenty-two civilians, President Nixon intervened, and Calley served only three years under house arrest. Thompson and Colburn received hate mail.
Colburn’s obituary includes a photo, taken forty years later, of Colburn with a Vietnamese man named Do Ba, who had been that eight-year-old boy Colburn and his comrades saved.
Here is Colburn’s obituary.
Here is a letter sent by Captain Aubrey M. Daniel, who prosecuted Calley, to President Nixon.
- Created on Monday, 14 November 2016 07:51
As it happened, last week I was reading Robert Harris' historical novel Imperium, and couldn't help but be struck by this passage:
You can always spot a fool, for he is the man who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election. But an election is a living thing – you might almost say, the most vigorously alive thing there is – with thousands upon thousands of brains and limbs and eyes and thoughts and desires, and it will wriggle and turn and run off in directions no one ever predicted, sometimes just for the joy of proving the wiseacres wrong.