College Athletics and the Common Good


If we looked at actual young men and women, and not abstractions, we might begin to think of other things besides the ratio of members of each sex participating in this or that activity. We might think about love.

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A few weeks ago, I was taken to task for yawning in public. The American and Canadian women’s Olympic hockey teams got into a brawl, and I yawned about it in a comment box appended to the report on ESPN. I made a mild jest to the effect that very few people give a passing thought to women’s hockey.

Someone then notified a colleague of mine, whom I have never met. Two days before Christmas, he wrote to tell me that I was “sexist” and “ignorant,” and that Providence College evidently has a lot more work to do to establish “diversity in all its forms.” He suggested a couple of possibilities for my re-education. I refrained from asking him which official had given him oversight of my opinions regarding women's hockey, especially since no official had given me oversight of his opinions. I did reply, giving my opinion on college athletics in general and their dubious effect on the common good of the students, but he was interested only in the politics of it all, and he ignored what I had to say.

On the specific matter of athletics, there certainly are a lot of bad things to say about the NCAA and its abuse of sometimes marginal students to prop up extraordinarily lucrative television contracts. College football and men’s basketball are multi-billion-dollar businesses, dependent entirely upon the efforts of the players, who receive none of the profits, who often receive even less of an education than their classmates do, and who are mostly forgotten once they earn their diplomas. That is, if they do earn them; some programs are notoriously bad at ensuring that their players graduate. But I didn’t want to get into the corruption of the NCAA.

Instead I asked about the good of sport itself—and I do believe that it is a great good. If we agree that it is good, then it seems only right that a college should try to extend that good to as many students as possible, in a variety of venues and forms, and in such a way as to help bring students together in common enterprises. But does the typical college do so?

Let us suppose that the campus has a large gym for basketball, a rink for hockey, a field for soccer and rugby, another field for field hockey and track, a field for softball, and an astroturf field for lacrosse and intramural field sports. That would pretty much describe Providence College, where I teach. There are one or two other areas where smallish games can be played, but that is about it. All of those fields are reserved for the special use of the college teams and for intramural teams that book the astroturf.

In other words, space is at a high premium. Certain areas are cordoned off for the use of very few students; twenty out of four thousand, in the case of the softball field. Why should this be so?

College sports, all of them, are an expensive plant; and women’s college sports are an expensive hothouse plant, at that. Only by means of a large infusion of money can most of the men’s sports and all of the women’s sports survive, as they are now constituted. Very few college sporting events attract more than a few dozen onlookers, and when you consider that the fields are far more often in use for practice than for playing, their contribution toward the common good of all students is quite small. The women’s sports labor under an additional burden of perceived artificiality.

But if a college really believed in the camaraderie that sport helps to foster and the excitement of watching one’s friends struggle to win fair and square—if its administrators truly believed that such benefits should be extended to as many students as possible, regularly and in a wide variety of ways—then it could take a tiny portion of what is now spent on coaches, recruiters, physicians, staff, and travel, and devote it to promoting club sports and a robust program of intramurals.

A campus with 4,000 students, almost half of them male, could easily field several baseball teams, a football team, three-on-three basketball teams, teams for flag football and light-weight football, a wrestling team, clubs for women’s golf or tennis, women’s hockey or basketball, or whatever the students might wish. The beauty of club sports is that they are self-organized, local, and inexpensive. They involve all kinds of ordinary people. They are not serious, nor are they meant to be.

There are several reasons why I won’t be seeing a renaissance of club sports at our school. It would involve a radical alteration in our way of thinking about athletics and about donations from alumni, who remember with great fondness the glory days of Providence College basketball.

But the strangest reason of all explains why my inquisitor was not interested in pursuing the subject of athletics any farther. It is simply this: club sports cannot serve the political end that women’s sports are meant to serve.

Put it another way. If on my imagined campus, five hundred women and fifteen hundred men play on some team, and there’s always some game going on somewhere, and the students are caught up in the sheer liveliness of it all, that is not good, because the ratio is “wrong.” It would be better if only one hundred women and one hundred men played, on fields reserved for them, and at considerable expense, paid in large part by their fellow students. The public appearance of equality must be adored above all, even if it implies a staggering inequality in other respects; unequal access to precious space on campus; and unequal opportunity to win a scholarship.

The whole interchange has set me to thinking about how little concern anyone in our time evinces for the common good. We worship abstractions, like the metaphysical French revolutionaries whose hearts Edmund Burke declared to be purely evil. I am not saying that we are purely evil. There are few Robespierres in our midst, mainly because our thinking is too sporadic and muddled; we are partly saved by inattention and illogic. But if we looked at young men and young women and the common good, and not abstractions, we might begin to think of other things besides the ratio of members of each sex participating in this or that activity. We might think about love.

If I said to my inquisitor, “For most people, the single thing that most determines whether they will be happy in life is whether they marry well,” he would probably, grudgingly, agree. But if that is so, and if such strong marriages are themselves miniature societies, both serving the common good and setting examples of communion in action, then why do not schools do all in their power to bring young men and women together in wholesome and merry activity? Why do they not divert a tithe of their athletic budgets to weekly dances and concerts and games and shows for everyone? Why is not a good marriage as great a cause for celebration as is some student’s landing a job with Bear Stearns? Why are not big and happy alumni families featured as successes?

It is rather odd, when you think of it that way—when you move away from regarding everything, even women’s hockey, in a political light. You see that the first thing that the “political” lose sight of is the polis. It never occurred to my inquisitor to consider what life on an urban campus is like for the very large majority of students who are not on one of the teams. Nor did he consider what life might be like if we really kept the common good in mind, for young men and young women, and the generations they may raise.

Worship politics, and you lose the polis. Love God and neighbor, and you have half a chance of throwing good block parties into the bargain.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata and Dante's The Divine Comedy.

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