LSU Faculty Senate Publications

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Message from President: At the end of the LSU-Texas A&M game, television captured Les Miles standing in the embrace of a burly player, insistently singing the LSU alma mater. Any comedy that might have inhered in such an effort at roughhouse opera deteriorated under the impression that the performance was sending a bullying message to LSU officials about the alleged high level of public support for a coach rumored to be fighting for his job. By exploiting a musical component from the sacraments of the academic community for exclusively personal ends, the beleaguered coach helped everyone to understand what has gone wrong with big-time athletics and to see precisely why universities should dismantle the monster that they have wrought. Miles’s cooptation of community musical property for personal purposes points up that big-money intercollegiate athletics now emphasizes exclusion rather than inclusion. Setting aside all the obvious problems and corruptions in the revenue sports—the injuries; the traffickers known as “agents”; the enrichment of an oligarchy of old men by the unpaid services of young players—college athletics has flipped its original justifying narrative. The old stories about the all-American boy who quotes Shakespeare while occasionally playing football or the orphan who makes good or the minority empowered by a sports career have now given way to tabloid-quality yarns about ambition, yarns that stress the rarity and exclusivity of both playing and coaching talent. The inordinate attention given to recruiting, for example, underlines the difficulty of joining teams that have almost no social or ideological connection to other groups. Participation requirements that exclude all but the superhumanly fit directly conflict with the mission of colleges and universities, which aim to uplift large populations and extend their benefits to the many. A review of the full apparatus of high-revenue athletics reveals a repeated thematizing of exclusion, hierarchy, and disconnectedness. Only a few wealthy fans may consume potent beverages in cordonedoff bars; season tickets pass from generation to generation through dynastic inheritance that excludes the hoi polloi; some academic buildings remain closed off, on game day, even to faculty members; prime real estate on and around campuses is commandeered for training and administrative facilities—for highly secured castles; some facilities, although used only a few days per year, remain sealed to all but a few; through a regressive tax on the poor and by way of extreme stratification, low-yield fans are shoved into the cheap seats while the well-heeled and influential hide in royal sky-boxes. Occasionally, the acts of exclusion perpetrated by the rulers of the athletic revenue pool insult the intelligence, the latest example of unrepentant absurdity being the claim that the multimillion dollar LSU A&M sports nutrition center will be open to anyone in the student community (anyone, that is, who wants a mega-dose of protein at 3:00 in the morning). Perhaps the greatest calamity wrought by high-revenue athletics is the contravention of the academic mission by the teaching of folly rather than philosophy. There are some obvious examples: the regressive image of women perpetuated by exclusionary para-athletic organizations such as the LSU Golden Girls; the maintaining of captive wild animals on campus for the primary purpose of amusing vulgar audiences; the false suggestion the poor-quality logo products (think “Tiger Chardonnay”) deserve approval; the endorsing of junk food or anti-education political candidates by high-profile coaches; and the provision of “media training” for athletes, training that schools youngsters in evasion and in the avoidance of free speech and critical thinking. The worst effects of the athletic cult are, however, more subtle. A common myth among athletics boosters and sports foundation heads holds that donors and “foundation” members do not misapply their gifts—that those folks would not give to academic charities, hence should be hit up for athletics-related purposes. This claim ignores the training effect: the gradual and insidious sending of the message to the public that the business of athletics is a perfectly acceptable charity. That message trains donors not to give to academic causes and thereby perpetuates the bizarre phenomenon of philanthropists who only want to support “ball.” On an even larger scale, top-level academic administrators should ask themselves whether revenue sports in their modern form teach the public either the habit of analytic thinking or what coaches themselves like to call “values.” Given that more than a few presidents and chancellors finds themselves under the tail that is wagging the dog, such reflections would seem to be salutary.