The hypocrisy of March Madness

Next Monday night, the nation’s eyes will try to focus on the culmination of March Madness, the championship game of the NCAA basketball Division I tournament. The announcers will talk about the Cinderella stories, about how remarkable this player or that player is. You won’t hear a peep from the announcers that Division I sports represent not only what is wrong with college sports, but also the general hypocrisy of America’s top colleges.

The championship game is Round 6 of the tournament. Let’s go back to this year’s Round 1 when the Missouri Tigers were outclawed by the Cincinnati Bearcats. Missouri’s loss was the culmination of a season that went downhill. They lost five of their last six games when they seemed to be just “phoning it in.”

Maybe their poor play was because Coach Mike Anderson’s mind was thinking about the red and white of the Arkansas Razorbacks, rather the black and gold of the team he was presently coaching. No sooner was Mizzou eliminated from the tournament than talk began that Anderson was thinking about jumping to Arkansas. Never mind that he had five years remaining on his contract. The jumping-ship game was one that had been played the last two years with the outcome being that the University of Missouri increased his pay to keep him in Columbia. Following the 2010-11 season, we learn that Arkansas was offering Anderson $2.2 million per year. Missouri raised its offer to $2.0 million; not enough to satisfy Anderson. It’s possible that if the figures had been reversed, Anderson still would have gone to Arkansas. It is home to him.

Perhaps the clearest perspective on what should happen next came from St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, who suggested that Missouri’s next coach should come from the high school ranks, rather than another Division I university. He gave three good reasons: (1) grabbing another D-1 coach would be perpetuating the unsavory system of coaches jumping ship in mid-contract for more money and prestige, (2) high-school coaches actually work harder than college coaches because they don’t have a bevy of assistants, and (3) they could pay a high-school coach $100,000, and he would be thrilled to be making a king’s ransom. Perhaps more importantly, it would be a salary commensurate with what top professors at the university make. That answers the obvious question of why should sports coaches make more money than physics professors.

Discussing Mike Anderson’s move to Arkansas on the Thursday, March 24 Donnybrook show, McClellan noted that when he was on the student newspaper at Arizona State University, he said that football players ought to be allowed to major in football, rather than pretending to be serious academic students, when many were not. He added that the football players would work much harder to do well in their major than he and others did when majoring in more conventional college disciplines.

The universities are happy to make millions off football and basketball, but not dignify them with the status of a major. McClellan pointed out that students can major in music, if that is their primary area of interest. And while “student athletes” cannot be paid for their work on the field or court, it is legal to pay music majors for performing at certain university-sponsored events.

The hypocrisy of university policies and practices is illustrated by how they treat athletes. On the one hand, they lavish them with praise and honors. They also tend to look the other way at indiscretions that don’t become public. The universities might also flaunt NCAA rules by having special considerations (gifts) wind up in the hands of athletes, when not for non-athletes.

But on the other hand, athletes are the only students on campus who can’t major in an area that is their career dream. If someone is interested in being an architect, he or she can major in architecture. If someone wants to be an artist, there are a host of majors within the art department. If someone wants to be a stock broker, he or she can major in economics or business. If someone wants to be a writer, the English department will be thrilled to have another student consider their discipline to be that important. Don’t tell me that it is silly for athletes to major in their sports because it is unlikely that they will succeed professionally; how many art majors reach financial success in their chosen field?

If students were allowed to major in sports, their requirements could go beyond the effort they make and the quality of their performance. Many athletes need more help in “off-field” activities than on-field ones. If you are a B.M.O.C.(Big Man on Campus), you experience certain pressures than students with any other major avoid. An athlete, particularly a high-profile one, cannot quietly and anonymously walk across campus. He or she has to learn how to deal with public adulation. They have to deal with the stereotype of being a jock. They have to deal with the additional pressure to party hard and show how much they can drink. Steroids may (or may not) be discouraged. Alcohol is just part of being an athlete.

Universities are often ranked by the quality of their academics (clearly subjective in nature) and the quality of their sports teams. Then there are the underground rankings, which generally focus on how much of a party school it is. The assumption is, the more partying (and drinking), the better.

So here are a few suggestions for universities. While they wouldn’t eliminate a 64-team basketball tournament in March, they could take the madness out of it and replace it with civility.

1. No matter how much revenue football and basketball teams generate, coaches should be paid no more and no less than professors.

2. Students should be allowed to major in a sport just as they do in an art form.

3. Majoring in a sport should involve more than just playing it. It should include learning how to deal with the pressures of being a “star on campus.”

Colleges face numerous challenges, none of which can be solved through hypocrisy. A good place to start would be to stop pretending that the terms “scholar-athlete” and “March Madness” can coexist.