Liberal Sports Fantasies

The old gag about newspapers went something like this. The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country. The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country. The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country and they did a far superior job of it.

That used to be true, but not anymore. The great consolidation of the media means they are all just branch offices for the ministry of official dogma. Even the so-called conservatives of the Wall Street Journal agree with the NYTimes on all of the big issues of this age. Their differences are only in style and tone. The Journal has old Jewish guys running the new side, while the Times  has childless Jewish women. The editorial pages are the two faces of the ruling class.

The Boston Globe may have been a big deal to the former rulers, but now it is sort of a low budget, off-Broadway act. It’s like a child actor who has never come to terms with the fact he peaked at ten years old. They have all the pretentiousness you find at the Times or Journal, but none of the talent. Anyway, this is an editorial from today regarding the Connecticut basketball team.

Well before UConn began its magical march to the national men’s basketball championship, it led the 64-team tournament in a far less exalted category: lowest graduation rate. At 8 percent, UConn’s six-year graduation rate for its men’s basketball team is, frankly, a disgrace that can’t remotely be offset by the glories of Monday night’s victory. Second-year coach Kevin Ollie, who wasn’t in charge when the players started dropping classes like errant passes, wisely proclaimed that academics comes first, and touted the classroom success of this year’s team. He needs to keep working toward that goal, year in and year out, and seek to build a legacy similar to that of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose four national championships over 34 years is less impressive than the fact that 98 percent of his players have gotten degrees.

Two things that jump out to me right away. Duke is an obvious exception, as the demographics of their program are nothing like the typical basketball program. If you are an above average IQ prep basketball player, that’s your Harvard.  The very small fraction of basketball players who have the cultural and intellectual ability to make it at Duke is exceptionally small. Boston College has a similar graduation rate and their program is awful. The supply of smart basketball players is tiny.

The other thing that stands out is the obliviousness. The upper middle-class whites who run the Globe casually assume everyone heads off to college for the credentials and self-actualization. A bachelors in Medieval Folklore from Tufts is just as useful as a Journalism degree from Northwestern. For 90% of the kids getting basketball scholarships at major programs, the degree is meaningless. They are there to be trained for professional basketball, in America or overseas.

That’s an example of what makes radicalism such a potent religion. No amount of facts and evidence can shake the fantasy. The answer to every bit of dis-confirmation is either a bogeyman or a new plan to bring about the utopian future. Here we have John Calipari, the gold standard of college basketball coaches, calling for the players to become employees. One would think this would cause the folks at the Globe to re-examine their views on college athletics, but here they are.

 The problem with academics in intercollegiate sports is deeper than any one program. It’s a structural dynamic that’s easy to see: Craving the best athletes for the sports that drive alumni interest and fundraising, universities stretch their admissions standards to accept players who would have a hard time handling their classwork in the best of circumstances. But athletes face an array of challenges that other students don’t: a punishing practice schedule that chews up dozens of hours a week; a mixed set of incentives, since they get their scholarships based on performance in sports, not academics; and an exalted status on campus that puts them beyond some of the normal checks and balances that keep other students focused on classes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association bears a lot of the blame for letting sports overtake academics for far too many players. Lately, it’s tried to show some teeth by banning schools, including UConn last year, from championship play if their graduation rates are chronically low. But it’s an imperfect punishment. While universities deserve blame for low graduation rates, their current players — who aren’t responsible for the failures of their predecessors — do not. It’s tough to deprive them of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Over the years, the person best positioned to manage the conflicting pressures on the players has been the coach. If coaches make academics a priority, their players are far more likely to earn degrees. Some coaches, like Krzyzewski, are well known for showing care and concern for their players’ classroom performance. Others, like Ollie’s UConn predecessor, longtime coach Jim Calhoun, carry the opposite reputation. So, Ollie has his work cut out for him. At 41, he’s already lived up to Calhoun’s basketball legacy. It will take a lot of effort for him, and UConn, to live down Calhoun’s record of letting team members falter as students. He need only look down the hall of UConn’s athletic department for inspiration: The UConn women’s basketball team also brought home a national championship this year — with a 92 percent graduation rate.

The comparison to women’s basketball is hilarious. The women, who are not lesbians, have no expectations about playing professionally. They can, but they will be more interested in finding a husband and getting on with what biology requires. The lesbians, who make up a high percentage of players (and an outlandish percentage of fans) are not looking for a man, but their earning potential is very limited. Therefore, basketball is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

That’s not so say there’s nothing wrong with collegiate athletics. Basketball is a sewer of corruption. The fact that 60% of NBA players file for bankruptcy within five years of retirement is no surprise. From middle school through the professional ranks, the sport is dominated by people who make boxing promoters look honest. Letting these people run their businesses on college campuses is highly questionable. But, admitting to any of that would open the door to a whole lot of questions no one wants to ask.