By Rich Jensen
On Saturday, Wisconsin and Michigan State will face off for the Stagg Trophy and the Big Ten Championship.
The Stagg trophy is named after Amos Alonzo Stagg, who won seven conference titles and two national championships at the only school that has ever left the Big Ten: The University of Chicago.
In 1939 University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins disbanded the football team after a disastrous season. In 1946, Hutchins ended the university’s sponsorship of athletics.
An unconventional man in other areas as well (he radically altered the undergraduate curriculum, transforming it into a two-year Socratic exploration of “Great Books” which he described as “Teacher-proof”), Hutchins had a particular disdain for football. He once observed that “in many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one.” This some years before Dexter Manley asserted that he was functionally illiterate while attending Oklahoma State.
As far back as 1939, it was evident to Hutchins that success at the highest levels was incompatible with the often stated rationalizations in support of college athletics. Unquestionably, there are many students that benefit from participating in team and individual sports at the varsity level. However, you’ve probably never heard of most of them.
John Dalberg-Acton famously observed that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The machine that produces star players and coaches, that fills gigantic stadiums and generates billions of dollars in revenue is one that corrupts. It rewards cheating more often than not (the two teams most likely to play for the BCS championship as well as the 2011 Final Four winner are all under NCAA probation), it fosters greed (Ron Zook made over $450k per win as head coach of Illinois from 2009 to 2001, and finished over .500 once), it cultivates arrogance (see Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno’s dismissal of attempts by university authorities to discipline their players), and it attracts all manner of unsavory characters (insert photo of Donna Shalala hungrily eyeing a check from Nevin Shapiro).
Lord Acton also observed that “there is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success.” It’s worth keeping in mind as college football prepares to crown any number of conference and bowl champions. These coaches may excel at winning, these players may be good at their chosen field, but that is all that can be said of them. It is a mistake to characterize a good coach as a ‘molder of men’ based on his winning percentage. It is a mistake to assert that a successful coach is good at anything other than winning and retaining his job.
Barely a week after Joe Paterno’s reputation dissolved amid reports that he covered up an allegation of sexual assault, and even as Jim Boeheim was stoutly defending Bernie Fine against similar allegations, the sporting world stopped and paid homage to a successful basketball coach in terms that stretched far beyond his ability to win a record number of basketball games. Here was yet another example of a coach being heralded as a great man based solely on his ability to win games on an apparently honest basis.
The University of Chicago eventually reinstated football along with 16 other sports that compete in NCAA’s Division III; administrators after Hutchins recognized the value of a modest athletic program. Those interested in supporting universities that ‘do it right’ would do well to look outside the BCS schools, the big name/big budget schools, and ‘shop local’ as it were. And if you must support a BCS program, take an interest in the ‘non-revenue’ sports. Odds are those participants fall closer to the ideal of a ‘student athlete’ than the one-and-dones on your basketball team, or the kids who got arrested on your football team.
About the author: Jensen is a Sioux Falls-based computer guru, who spends an admirable amount of time thinking about the true issues in sports. Find out more about him at Altus Internet.