How much of university life is about education? Gladwell, Bissinger, and the football-on-campus debate

In “College Football Should Be Banned: How Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger won the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate,” Katy Waldman writes that “Bissinger [who is most famous for writing Friday Night Lights . . .] reserved his ire for what he called ‘the distracted university’: the campus so awash in fun and fandom that it neglects learning. The United States faces the most competitive global economy in recent memory, he warned. An unhealthy obsession with sports handicaps our intellectual class.” This might be true, but most students don’t seem to care very much: In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber says relatively few students attend college for primarily intellectual reasons. Most appear to view it as party time or a way to signal other characteristics.

Colleges have noticed this and responded, in the main, by inflating grades and reducing work. Campuses aren’t “awash in fun and fandom” because of some nefarious conspiracy: they’re awash in fun and fandom because most people appear to like those things more than they like discussing sonnets or the finer points of hash tables. There are obviously individual exceptions to this—like me, and most professors or would-be professors—but the overall trend is clear.

If students demand more serious classes, you’ll be able to tell by the number who stop taking weak business classes, comm, and sociology, and start taking hard core classes in the liberal arts and sciences. The overall trend, however, appears to be in the opposite direction in most disciplines and at most universities. This trend looks like it’s being driven more by students and their choices than by any other force. Until the chattering classes acknowledge that, we’re going to get hand-waving or evil-administrator explanations.

Still, I agree with Bissinger: college football should be ended or at least radically changed. But my reasons are different: it’s obvious that colleges should be paying the people who are professional athletes in all but name, and it’s unethical to pay coaches hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars while the effectively professional athletes receive only dubious “scholarships.” It’s also obvious by now that repeated sub-concussive blows to the head can cause CTE, and that football is inherently dangerous in the same way smoking is inherently dangerous. If adults want to take up inherently dangerous activities, they should be able to in most circumstances, and football is one of those circumstances. But they should at the very least be paid for the risks they choose to take.

That being said, if college sports are reduced to their proper scope, it’s not obvious what will replace them as a large-scale, collective ritual. Jonathan Haidt writes about the value of such rituals and the group experiences they inspire in The Righteous Mind, and American life has systematically removed such rituals from most people’s lives. Religion or military service once provided them, but now the former has waned for most people and the latter is a specialist occupation. Sports are one domain that expanded to fulfill the need many people have for arbitrary tribal affiliation and collective action. That might be one reason a lot of people react viscerally against the deserved criticism of college sports: such criticism feels like an attack on identity, not merely a discussion about economics and exploitation. I don’t really have a good method for negating or altering such feelings.

In the case of football, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a scenario like the one Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier lay out in “What Would the End of Football Look Like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis” occurs. Notice especially this line: “More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a ‘contagion effect’ with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit.” Based on the CTE data I’ve seen, there’s absolutely no way I’d let one of my (currently hypothetical) children play football, and if my friends let their kids play, I’d be tempted to forward some of the CTE and football literature. Just as very few modern parents want their children to smoke, even if they do or did, I would not be surprised if, in a short period of time, very few modern parents want their children to play football.

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