Monday, June 19

Hayden White's Damning Critique of College Sports

So extensive has been the coverage of the hypocrisy suffusing college sports that one feels embarrassed raising the issue yet again.

Everyone knows that college sports have long since betrayed their own ostensible educational purpose. They have become parts of the entertainment-media-business complex, open to criticism only when they fail to yield the profits — financial and psychological — they are supposed to generate. Indeed, the glamour and the thrill of college sports would hardly be imaginable without their link to the media and the market. But it can no longer be said, in this moment of an openly consumerist capitalism, that the commercialization of college sports sullies the reputation of the educational institutions that sustain and feed off them. The commercialization and professionalization of college sports have proceeded apace with similar processes in the institutions of higher education themselves.

All three traditional domains of higher education — sports, teaching, and research — as well as that new, distinctively modern monstrosity called "administration," replicate the same processes that have subverted the honor of the professions of law, medicine, the ministry, the military, politics, and business. All show what happens when commerce is substituted for morality and ethics throughout society.

The sleaziness of the college-sports business, its exploitation of young people — especially members of ethnic minorities — under the pretense of preparing them for life, is a symptom of a culture where skirting the letter of the law without getting caught is taken to be the highest form of political and business acumen. With a society so strung out between its affirmed ideals and its actual practices, and especially those practices that are necessary for success in the business world, it would be strange indeed if college sports were any less corrupt than their "real world" equivalents.

College sports is a business, business is good for the country, and what's good for the country is good for college sports. We might as well recognize that the supporters of college sports are right: College sports do prepare young people for real life — in exactly the same way that the business schools do. Small wonder that "performance enhancers" are the drugs of choice in both professional and what were once known as "amateur" sports. Performance is all that counts in society, in politics, in the arts, in business, and in our entertainments. Why shouldn't it be all that counts in our sports?

As in most large-scale business enterprises, such as, say, Halliburton or Bechtel or Microsoft, NASA, the pharmaceutical industry, Big Oil, Morgan Stanley, the military, the prison system, and the police, there is not much chance of reforming the college-sports scene — as little chance as there is of reforming the education "business" that needs its athletes the way the entertainment business needs its "idols."

But intellectuals can do one thing: They can expose those idealizations of the sports system that serve to justify its institutional infrastructures by appeal to the putative "beauty" and "sublimity" of the performance of the individual athlete.

That's why I take issue with my longtime friend Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. His recent book, In Praise of Athletic Beauty (Harvard University Press), is brilliantly composed and seriously researched but also overly sentimental about its subject: modern sports. It is a mistake to confuse being a fan with philosophy. Glorifying the "moments of presence" in sports is a gratuitous sellout to the entertainment industry, the public-relations agencies of professional sports, and the gambling industry that realizes more profits from the sports business than players themselves do. Likening watching sports to a religious experience, as Gumbrecht does, diverts attention from the sleaziness and ugliness of the institutions of college sports — in much the same way that certain ideologues in the 1930s distracted attention from the violence of war by celebrating the "sublimity" of battle.

Hayden White is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University.