Blogs > Cliopatria > Football and the university -- personal reflections

Oct 11, 2004 5:21 pm

Football and the university -- personal reflections

I've been thinking about football today. My beloved California Golden Bears fell just short in their game against USC on Saturday. Though Cal dominated the game statistically, 'SC won where it counts -- on the scoreboard. I don't place much stock in moral victories, though I am proud of my alma mater and excited about our prospects for the remainder of the year.

It's impossible to be simultaneously a gender studies professor and a football fan without periodically reflecting on this most violent and American of games. As a child, I was fond of watching pro football; I only became a real fan of the college game after going off to Berkeley in 1985. My freshman year, I had a student pass to all the home games, and went and cheered with wild enthusiasm.

Cal's 1986 season coincided with my sudden and ardent interest in women's studies. For the first time, I encountered folks who had serious, principled objections to this brutal game I loved so much. I began to ask questions about the colossal expense of college football programs, about the poor academic record of many of our recruits, and most importantly, about the link between football and violence against women.

An on-campus incident at the start of the academic year affected me deeply. After the first home game of the '86 campaign, four members of the football team were charged with raping a female student in a dorm room. (She had apparently consented to sex with one of them, and then he invited in his friends.) The incident was the talk of the campus. There was outrage when the coach refused to suspend the players unless they were charged criminally, which they never were. (The district attorney found insufficient evidence -- 1986 was apparently"pre-DNA" for all practical purposes.) As a"new feminist", I saw the case through new lenses; I was among those who marched and demanded that the four (three defensive players and a running back) be suspended immediately. I had become convinced that college football programs fostered a sense of entitlement among athletes, a sense that included the right of unrestricted access to young women's bodies. Though I was angry at the individual players (one of whom I had met briefly my frosh year), I also believed strongly that 18 and 19 year-old men who were recruited for their aggression and size and taught daily to"hit hard" were not entirely to blame when they had difficulty distinguishing defenseless human beings from their on-field opponents. Upshot? Hugo did not go to any games during the dismal 1986 football season until the"Big Game" with Stanford. Cal upset the overwhelmingly favored Cardinal, 17-11. My delight at having been present for the thrilling win brought to an end my boycott of the game. My doubts about football remained. When I came to grad school at UCLA, I found that many grad students made extra money by serving as athletic department tutors. The pay was excellent: $15-20 an hour, which was outstanding compensation in 1991. In some cases, it was more than what we were making as teaching assistants! I spent two quarters during the early 1990s working for the UCLA athletic department. I had friends who worked for the department for much, much longer.

One term, I was assigned one specific task: to help UCLA's dimwitted placekicker pass a famously easy course. I won't name the kicker, though anyone who has access to old Bruin media guides could probably find out who the fellow was. The course was Introduction to Russian Culture, taught by a Professor Vroon. I was paid for the following services: three days a week (the class was MWF), I met"my kicker" outside the lecture hall before the class and then sat with him during the lecture. Though he was to be encouraged to take notes, I took notes as well. We met weekly to review the notes and prepare for tests. He had no interest in school, but it had been impressed upon him that if he did not earn at least a"C", he would not be kicking the following season (which was to be his last year). I spent countless hours with him. He was bored by school, bored by the class, bored by me. I wanted him to pass very badly, largely because I knew I would get rehired and get still more money if I could prove to the athletic department that I could"get the job done."

My kicker passed the class. I made him write the first draft of his term paper by himself, and then I" cleaned up" all the grammar and made him the gift of a thesis. I was never told directly to write papers for him. Publicly, the athletic department insisted that the grad students like me were just"tutors", and all the real work was done by the players themselves. That may well have been true for some. But my placekicker would not have survived Professor Vroon's course had it not been for my"extra help". And I can assure you that privately, the director of the athletic tutoring program had made it clear to me that I was to do what was necessary to get that young man a C. I did as I was asked, and was paid handsomely. I made over $1200 for that passing grade, and as a poor grad student, was grateful for the opportunity. Had I not been given the editorship of UCLA's journal for Medieval and Renaissance Studies the following year, I might well have continued to work for the athletic program. To be fair, I also met some football players at Cal and UCLA who were bright, hard-working, and motivated. Some of these knew they would never make a living at pro football, and were grateful for the chance to get a free university education. Some did quite well. But in my limited experience, they were the exception rather than the rule. As a teaching assistant at UCLA, I had athletes from other programs in my classes, including a whole bevy of softball players. I found that there were no discernible differences between non-football playing athletes and other students (though I heard anecdotally that the men's basketball team had some real academic duds). The women athletes in particular often did better than their non-athlete fellow female students. The problem seemed to lie primarily in the football program. (Yes, there was and is a racial dimension to all of this, one that I am uncomfortable addressing.)

I still love college football. I have no particular love for UCLA, though they paid me well. My love is for Cal, even as I suspect that conditions in Cal's"tutoring program" are probably not all that different than at UCLA. I question the tremendous expense, and above all, I am troubled by the apparent link between football and violence against women.

But for now, at least, I'm still cheering. Go Bears!

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More Comments:

Derek Charles Catsam - 10/12/2004

College applications surely go up when schools are successful at sports. Both UConn and Maryland had huge jumps in applicants as a result of successes especially on the court, but also on the gridiron in Maryland's case (and increasingly in UConn's). Further, I think Jonathan's point is flawed in that the ivies offer the lartgest oifferings of sports programs in the country, Stanford has often won the sears Cup for athletic excellence, and Williams is the only school to win both the Sears Trophy (for being the best DIII athletic program -- we've won it every year but one since the inception of the award) and to be #1 in US News rankings. So the problem does not seem to be athletics per se, though the link between sports and boosterism may have some merit.

Hugo Schwyzer - 10/11/2004

Well, the boosterism goes back to the very founding of many universities. UCLA was only founded in 1919, for example; by the time it came into being, college sports were already huge... some have said that the basketball team's reputation in the 60s and 70s helped UCLA become what it is.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/11/2004

I think college athletics and boosterism was the first sign of the 'highschoolization' of higher education. There's no academic justification for it; it's pure atavism, except where it is blatant careerism.

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