Saturday, December 13, 2008

How ESPN can Change the World

I had never heard of Mel Proctor before this evening, but apparently the veteran sports broadcaster is accomplished enough to have his own Wikipedia page (upon which I detect a note of sarcasm in the statement that he is "known for reading stats out of the media guide"). He is now calling college basketball games for the Big Ten Network, and therefore had occasion to broadcast the Wisconsin/UW-Green Bay game. His lack of familiarity with the Big Ten in general and the state of Wisconsin in particular was evident by his tendency to emphasize the wrong word in "Green Bay," as well as his identification of the Badgers home venue as the "Kohl Arena." He also made an odd reference to the Badgers "girls team" (rather than the standard "women's team"). But the most unsettling comment of the broadcast came when he gave a litany of concerns that Badgers coach Bo Ryan apparently had about the game, among those that with finals starting tomorrow (sic), the players' focus would be on "more than just the game at hand."

The idea that a college athlete's academic load could interfere with their ability to do their "real job" is one that is usually not articulated that blatantly, though the belief that a college athlete's primary allegiance is to their team rather than their academic courses is probably an unexamined assumption made by many sports fans. The only context that fans see the athletes in is the glamorous arena of competition, and though there is a vague awareness that they have a less-glamorous "day job," it really doesn't register that these nationally scrutinized young people sit in classes, take notes, listen to lectures, take tests, and write papers.

But is this unawareness in any way harmful? I believe it is because it promotes a culture that filters down to the student-athletes themselves, as they come to regard their athletic affiliation as their central identity and their student status a marginal one. The extent to which this is occurring in college sports today was revealed by a recent USA Today analysis of declared majors of college athletes. What they found was that at many institutions, athletes tended to "cluster" around a major, in highly disproportionate numbers to their institutions' general student bodies. For example, about half of all football and basketball players at Boise State are communications majors. Well over half of football players at Southern Cal are sociology majors. All seven upperclassmen on the UTEP basketball team major in "multidisciplinary studies." The obvious implication is that these players are taking on classes that will allow them to get high grades with minimal effort in order to allow them to focus on sports.

Is this a problem? Perhaps not for the elite athlete who will go on to a pro career. But the vast majority of college athletes won't be able to actually make a living playing their sport. USA Today profiled a few who felt like they wasted their free college education, some of whom have returned to school on their own dime in order to get a degree that will actually advance a career.

So what can be done about this? Any talk about how to solve problems relating to the balance between the demands of athletics and academics usually starts and ends at the institutional level. Colleges are given directives and initiatives, time passes, and new directives and initiatives are given. What needs to happen in order to break this endless cycle and actually implement change is for other institutions to step up and contribute. Specifically, I think the media should play a role in putting the focus back on the classroom.

Now, I'm not advocating making players grade point averages as public as their scoring averages or rushing averages, but I think that a player's declared major, which are already public, should be emphasized more. When starting lineups are introduced, in addition to height and hometown, majors should be mentioned. When players' stats are displayed, their major should always be included. This helps send the message that academics are an important part of a student-athlete's identity.

Furthermore, whenever a player is interviewed by a TV network or is the focus of a print media profile, there should be an obligatory question about school. And lest anyone suggest that it would make for boring television, I would actually point out that player interviews as presently conducted are almost always boring television. Having a player explain the focus of an essay they are writing or a research project they are doing would be a welcome change from the cliched questions and answers viewers are usually "treated" to.

By making the promotion of academics even a small point of emphasis, the sports media has the ability to do a lot of good. By changing public perception about what it means to be a college athlete, media outlets can also nudge the public at large into a greater appreciation of the importance of learning and education. However, there needs to be a re-examination of the attitudes of media members themselves. I've long detected a latent (sometimes blatant) anti-intellectualism in sports journalism. From the dismissal of Dennis Miller from the Monday Night Football broadcast booth to ESPN radio's "Mike and Mike" cutting the microphone of a producer who referenced Machiavelli, there seems to be a resistance to allowing too much erudition into discussions about games that involve sticks and balls.

There has long been a mind/body dichotomy in our culture, with the respective archetypes of the uncoordinated bookworm and the dumb jock. I think it is time that this binary is shattered, and we return to a Greek or Renaissance-era paradigm, in which it is considered possible to excel in mind and body.

And maybe then the Big Ten Network will have a better pool of broadcasters to choose from.


Blogger Jessi said...

That's crazy that you were at the same restaurant on the same day! It's a small world out there huh? We always go after the rush, so we didn't get in the door til 8:30pm. ESPN has changed the world. It causes men to ignore their wives! :) (and I guess inlaws at supper too huh? :)

5:51 PM  
Blogger maozer said...

hey it's been fun.

8:56 PM  

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