Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Life Lessons from Sports: What about the Sixty Years after College?

In ancient Roman schools, boys who failed to learn their lessons were beaten on their bare backs with a ferula, a long piece of flat wood. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and we rarely hear about corporal punishment in the classroom, even of the kind I recall from childhood, like the paddle, knuckles rapped with a ruler, or kneeling on raw peas. Treatment of this type by a teacher today would be called assault and battery.

Yet in collegiate sports a coach who shoves his player “to motivate” him merely gets a mild rebuke from the university administration. Another coach, who threw basketballs at his players’ heads and knees, kicked them, and called them insulting names, has recently been fired . . . but only after the smoking gun of video went viral on the Internet.

Life lessons from sports? To be sure, quite a few life lessons are being learned by the victims of these coaches. What it’s like to be abused by a caretaker would be one. And, paraphrasing Menander, the lesson that you haven’t been trained unless you’ve been flogged. Sadly, many of the players, typical of abuse victims, defend their abusers by saying “it was for my own good.”

Remove the physical abuse from consideration and a dictatorial drill sergeant mentality, which would not likely be tolerated in a classroom teacher, still dominates coaching in sports. The mentality is often defended under the blather of providing valuable “life lessons.” Dependent robots and obedience to authority are what these coaches want and get.*

Independent thinking is the life lesson kids most desperately need to be learning—at home, in the classroom, and in sports. They need to be thinking about what they will do with their lives after the sports end, and the sports will end in college, if not sooner, for nearly all of them. What happens then? Get a job stocking shelves at Walmart?

Half of all college athletes after they graduate make less money than their non-athletic counterparts. Why? Because they don’t have the work experience and internships to put on their resumes that the non-athletes have. Athletes are expected by their drill sergeants to spend up to 45 hours per week on their sport. Throw in two hours of homework for every hour in class and not much time is left in the week. The “solution,” of course, for college athletes is to take fewer units and perhaps not ever graduate, or take puffcake courses like billiards, bowling, and water color painting.

Walmart is a fine place to work, but working there after college is not why one gets that degree.

If  the words “fraud” and “exploitation” come to mind in relation to amateur sports, there is good reason. The National Collegiate Athletic Association deserves the epithets the most. Fraud because, as scathingly chronicled, with analogies to slavery, by civil rights historian Taylor Branch (1, 2), there is nothing amateur—in expertise and, especially, money—about today’s sports. And exploitation, because the kids never see a penny of the billions they earn for their universities.

Scholarships are payment, no? No. The so-called full ride, contingent on not getting injured, still leaves an average of $3200 a year to cough up out of pocket, leaving some of the kids from poor families without grocery money or bus fare home for spring break. Another life lesson learned!

The obsession that parents and coaches in youth leagues have over landing a scholarship to college is, to put it mildly, absurd. Aside from the minuscule chance of being granted one, scholarship is still not necessary in most states to get a college education.**

In my thirty-plus years as a college professor, I have had my share of athletes in the classroom. One Division 1 football player told me his practices were from 2:00 – 6:00PM. My class started at 6:00, so he was always late. After four or five weeks, I never saw or heard from him again.

Another football player (at a different school) attended my class just after completing his first season in the National Football League. He made two pointed comments to me about why he was in that seat. One, that unlike his teammates he was determined to finish his degree. The second was his observation that when playing in the NFL you are just a  highly paid blue-collar worker. Meaning there was no way he was going to remain a blue-collar worker (or become a stock clerk at Walmart) when his playing days were over. This student went on to a successful career in the NFL and now has an equally successful career in business.

Projecting and setting goals beyond sports. That’s a good life lesson.



*”Legal, even celebrated child abuse” in Olympic gymnastics and figure skating was exposed by Joan Ryan in her 1995 book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. “Absolute subservience” is how she described the demands of certain famous coaches.

**This assumes that education is what these parents and coaches really care about, as opposed to bragging rights about the child getting a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Forty percent of students in the California State University system receive no financial aid at all. They earn their education the old-fashioned way, going to community college for two years, then working 20-40 hours a week to earn the rest at a Cal State. And California is no longer among the least expensive states in which to attend college.


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