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What's So Bad About College Sports?

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I have this morning ritual on the weekends. I get up, I make coffee, and I read the New York Times. It's something I've done since I was in high school, and something I probably will do until I die or the world has ended in a fiery Mayan prophesied apocalypse.

So today when I pulled up the New York Times I noticed an article in their Education Life section entitled, "How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life." I rolled my eyes. You see, before even clicking on the article, I had a feeling I knew what was waiting for me inside. And I was right. Amidst recaps of recent college athletics scandals (including the tragedy that occurred at our very own Penn State, which we'e discussed at length in our recent potluck), the article quotes some cantankerous academics who are jealous about the position of, oh I don't know, the medieval art history department vis-a-vis major college football. And of course the story wouldn't be complete without references to a few new studies, one that purports to show that male college students at Oregon drank and partied more while studying slightly less when the Ducks football program was doing well, and another which inversely charted the number of electronic article downloads from campus libraries to the length of participation of the school's basketball team in March Madness.

Well you know what? I've had enough.

I am so tired of the articles that malign college sports as a corrupting force on our sacred institutions of higher learning. As a cancer whose size (as calculated by athletics budgets) somehow acts to warp the priorities of students and seemingly will cause the end of the world if we don't get it under control.

I've had enough of all this, because, frankly, it's wrong.

Here's a news flash to all the hand wringers out there: college students will drink regardless of the status of college athletics at their institutions. They will party. They will cut class. They will, at times, take their educations for granted. And even before we get to all that, high school students will make decisions about what institutions to attend for entirely superficial reasons.

How do I know this? Because I went to a Division III school for my undergraduate degree. A school that is often prized for its academics -- The University of Chicago.

And guess what? All of the above happened at the U of C. I did all that and more, and I wasn't the only one.

If the students aren't camping outside in frigid weather in service of college basketball, they'll be camping outside in frigid weather for equally silly reasons, say, because of the world's largest scavenger hunt. If they aren't picking a college based on its football program, they'll be picking it because their high school girlfriend/boyfriend is going there and lord knows that always works out for the best. If they aren't drinking because their school is participating in March Madness, they'll be drinking because some other school is participating in March Madness.

And yet, the world turns. Life goes on. People graduate. Some go on to do extraordinary things, others lead mediocre lives, contributing no appreciable return to society from their education. And that's fine. That's how it should be.

Now, that's not to say that I believe college athletics or its place within the general configuration of a university is perfect. It isn't. Clearly. But the thing is, even when we see the worst and looks as though things are spinning out of control, the saner heads in the room ultimately prevail. Joe Paterno and Graham Spainer were fired for what occurred at Penn State. And the university restructured the way the athletic department relates to the head of the school and the board of trustees. That's not to say I absolve certain parts of the student body at Penn State for reacting the way they did to news of JoePa's ouster. Or that I think we should have to have such horrific incidents to bring a bit of balance back to the world.

But what I am saying is that, on the whole, college sports are a good thing. Even the way they currently stand. College sports unite us. They knit university communities together, forging bonds that endure even long after graduation. The direct effect of this is of course is easy to see. The money generated by major college athletics, directly and indirectly, funds the universities they exist at. It's what pays for cutting edge medical research as well as esoteric scholarship. Further, studies have shown that college sports are good for the athletes that participate, across all levels, from Division I through III. I know that I was changed for the better as a person as a result of being an NCAA athlete, and I can't be the only one. And let's face it, college sports are just plain fun.

Maybe if people stopped worrying so much about the place of college athletics in the world today, we'd be able to focus on issues that actually merit real concern...