Sympathy for the Devil

Few people are demonized more by Rutgers sports fans than William C. Dowling, Professor of English at Rutgers University.

There's a reason for this. Dowling wants to end Division one sports at Rutgers. He thinks that Division one athletics is corrupting the noble role of education in America.

 In an article he wrote:

"The naming of post-season bowl games after products or corporations—the FedEx Orange Bowl, the Equitable Liberty Bowl, the Toyota Gator Bowl, the Chick fil-a Peach Bowl, the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl—has been taken as a symptom of the takeover of American consciousness by commercial culture.

This is correct, but what it misses, when big-time college sports is the issue, is the sense in which commercial culture also represents a symbolic form of 'ownership,' a powerful and reassuring sign that one's university—especially one's state university—is not an outpost or citadel controlled by an alien 'higher' culture of ideas or knowledge.

The fans who view the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on television, in short, are watching not only a football game but a demonstration that the same culture that generated The Jerry Springer Show and cable-TV wrestling has been able to penetrate, and to hollow out from within, the university as an institution."

Strip those paragraphs of the pedantry and the messages is simple:

"Big Time college athletics has become so commercialized that it is damaging the colleges that promote it."

You know what?

He has a point.

The recent spectacle of the raid on the Big East by the ACC should be Dowling's "Exhibit A."

Let's think about it.

The word "collegial" comes from the Latin word "collegialis", meaning: "of colleagues". Well, it doesn't take much thought to ascertain what types of values should thrive in a "collegial" setting. And it doesn't take much reflection to determine what values you would like to see in your colleagues. These would be the values of "honesty", "loyalty", "fair dealing", "integrity" and "harmonious respect for the well being of all", just to name a few. Most everyone would agree that those are the type of values that a good university would promote. Colleges and universities, most would say, should be  "honorable" and should instill "honor" in their students.

Do our colleges behave in a "collegial" fashion? Are they honorable institutions? Are they promoting the types of values consistent with a quality education. If you gauge your answer by the behavior of many schools on the east coast over the past few months, it is not even a close call. That behavior has been so dishonorable it is embarrassing to recount.


Quislings and fools

Virginia Tech started out the spring as a solid member of the Big East. They didn't know at the time that they were about to face a character test, but they were.

They faced it. They failed it miserably.

When it became apparent that an ACC raid of the Big East was "on".  Virginia Tech was asked where it would stand when the chips were down.

Tech said it was with the Big East all the way.

VT joined Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Connecticut in a lawsuit against that ACC. Tech made bold statements of its "unwavering" resolve to save the Big East. As to the Big East, Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver announced, "Our commitment is unwavering." As to a possible offer from the ACC, Virginia Tech President, Charles Steger proclaimed, "If an offer came today, we would not accept it." Virginia Tech stated in unequivocal terms its commitment to the Big East Conference.

However, Tech's loyalty to the league wouldn't last long. In fact, despite its vows of eternal fealty, Tech's loyalty lasted only a couple of weeks ... that's when the Hokies got a surprise invitation to "tobacco road". What followed was an almost blinding display of hypocrisy. The day after the ACC invitation Tech removed themselves from the lawsuit against the ACC, they hurriedly scheduled "site visits" with ACC officials and made a formal announcement that they would accept admission to the very conference they had been suing up until that very same morning.

Think about that. Just think about that. If you or I behaved like that can you imagine what words would be used to describe us?

Hypocrite, phony, double dealer, scoundrel.

That's what people would call us and you know something, the epithets would fit.

If truth be told few among us would behave in such a fashion. We'd be too embarrassed to show our faces in public afterwards. But that indeed is the behavior we have seen from one of the major universities in the nation.

And let's not just pick on Virginia Tech.

What about Boston College?

Prior to joining the Big East football conference in 1991, Boston College had a grand total of three Top 20 associated press rankings since 1950. Three in the prior 40 years, the same amount as Rutgers; that's all.

That all changed dramatically when they joined the Big East. BC surpassed that figure in just a decade with the BE. The new league was a boon for Boston College and its programs grew and thrived. One would conclude, logically,  that they would have great loyalty to a league that had benefited them so much.

It wasn't to be. When ACC expansion was first mentioned, Boston College stalwarts could hardly hide their enthusiasm for a switch. When an invitation looked to be in the offing, BC made it clear that they couldn't get out of the Big East fast enough. An "on site visit" to Chestnut Hill turned into an ACC/ BC love fest and the Big East seemed totally forgotten.

Amazingly, it got even worse. Anticipating the move that was never to happen, Boston College fans started ripping the Big East. They made a point of visiting the bulletin boards of fans of West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Rutgers. There, they would mock the teams of the seemingly dying league and proclaim their own superiority. They labeled Rutgers fans as "losers" and Pitt fans as "rejects". They superciliously called  themselves "the chosen ones" while they vilified Big East fans and insulted their institutions. In their mania, no style of insult seemed too vicious, no blow too low. It was a spectacle incredible to behold and difficult to believe. Their level of hatred seemed to know no bound.

It played out like a grotesque parody of "The Bonfire of the Vanities". It was theater of the absurd and all the more bizarre coming from supposed fans of a Jesuit institution that prided itself on its hallowed tradition.

Now, can anyone of you reading this imagine behaving with such ingratitude, such insolence, such arrogance, such malevolence?

I know I can't.

Even after the fact, it still boggles the mind.

But that was what happened and it was visible to anyone having the stomach to watch.

But even that wasn't all there was to see in this grand affair.

Beyond Virginia Tech's duplicity, beyond Boston College's puerile rages there was even more ....


The Power brokers

Miami and the ACC didn't behave much better.

They appointed themselves the financial power brokers of eastern athletics and they had a plan. They were going to move the locus of football interest on the east coast several hundred miles to the south. Rivalries were to be abandoned. A sports league would be destroyed. None of that mattered.

These self appointed rulers of eastern sports had decided to remake our world and our wishes didn't concern them in the least. These cognoscenti of eastern athletics were going to make all our choices for us. In board rooms and in conference calls our future was debated and decided. Television markets would be molded to maximize return. Shares therein valued and divvied up. Audiences were treated like stock debentures whose value was unrelated to the desires of living, breathing human beings.

We had become commodities to be traded. Chips to be cashed in.

If northeasterners didn't want to follow ACC football, that was too bad. They would soon learn that they had no choice. The ACC needed 12 teams and access to the northeast media markets. If they could "take" those markets, they would. Economic needs drove these decisions and no one cared if others got hurt. Who cared if it destroyed a conference? Who cared that hundreds of thousands of fans of the remaining Big East schools would find themselves orphaned? Who cared that a generation had grown up around rivalries that were about to be destroyed? None of that had anything to do with the bottom line.

The bottom line?

Weren't we talking about educational institutions here?

That avarice such as this had little to do with the great humanistic tradition of the west seemed lost on those who were cutting the deals. That such conduct had been treated as the foil of great literature for untold ages was a point missed by the participants. That such deeds made a mockery of the collegial, democratic notions of education in this country was an issue discussed occasionally by the commentators but only rarely by the deal makers.

A handful objected. Duke, North Carolina, a coach here, a faculty committee there spoke out. Most went along regardless of the price in moral terms.

Notions of fairness, collegiality, human respect and concern for others, people said, were best left to the ivory towers of academia.

This wasn't academia, this was business.

And that brings us back to William C. Dowling.


A sort of homecoming

In an essay railing against "big time" athletics Dowling recounts this anecdote about a college athlete:

"When he left Creighton, Mr. Ross had the overall language skills of a fourth grader and the reading skills of a seventh grader. Consequently, Mr. Ross enrolled, at Creighton's expense, for a year of remedial education at the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. At Westside, Mr. Ross attended classes with grade school children. . . . In July 1987, Mr. Ross suffered what he terms a 'major depressive episode', during which he barricaded himself in a Chicago motel room and threw furniture out the window. To Mr. Ross, this furniture 'symbolized' Creighton employees who had wronged him."

Many Rutgers fans think of William Dowling as the devil, but give the devil his due. The exploitation of young people in pursuit of an institution's athletic dreams is truly despicable. Dowling's activities have pointed out a dark side to college athletics often ignored in the glitz and glamour of the spectacle of college sports. To the extent he opposes the exploitation of youth, I stand wholly with him.

But Dowling goes farther. He believes that the commercialization of college sports has become a cancer on the soul of academia in America. That cancer, he says, must be excised in its entirety.

Has Dowling made his case?

In the past few months I haven't heard a peep from him.

Of course, he didn't have to speak a word. Virginia Tech athletics was speaking volumes about loyalty, Boston College fans about integrity, Miami about humility and so on.

Why, with such able advocates for his cause, should William Dowling even open his mouth?

I would think that he would remain silent and watch the spectacle with a knowing smile. The sharks of unbridled greed were devouring one another and thus, in the process, devouring themselves. William Dowling didn't need to so much as lift a finger.

Still, the question is there.

Has Dowling made his case?

I don't know but if the truth be told he may never have to.

If what we have seen says anything about the future of big time sports ... college athletics seems intent on making it for him.


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