Friday, January 11, 2008

A Battle of "Will"s: College vs. Professional Sports

Will Roberson is a 2002 graduate of Davidson College and former member of basketball staffs at Davidson College and Clemson University. He now resides in Charlotte, N.C., and is a constant reader and "critic" of the blog. In the following interchange, he and I square off on an age-old question: which is better, college or professional sports?

Will Bryan: College athletics are superior to professional athletes because they represent the highest level of sports. I define sport as organized competition between individuals or teams that is played for the fun and enjoyment of the players and the spectators. Professional athletics is paid entertainment. The players have a job to do and their work is not designed for their own personal fulfillment, but solely for the entertainment of the spectators. In this sense, college athletics is the highest level of volunteer sport. Many of its participants have nothing more to gain than some free sweatshirts and the enjoyment of competition. It does not constitute an occupation and because of that distinction, its participants are free to enjoy college athletics for what sports truly are: fun and games.

Will Roberson: First of all, I'm honored to be the latest (and clearly least talented) guest contributor to Will's World.

I'm afraid that you have been duped by the NCAA into believing that college athletics is pure and wholesome fun and games. College athletics is a business, just like professional sports. The difference is that professional sports are more transparent and don't operate under false pretenses.

Money drives every decision in college athletics just as it does in the pros. You want evidence? Check the 9 PM start time for the Davidson-Elon game on Wednesday night. You think it was in the student-athletes' best interests to play a game that didn't end until after 11:00?

And there's plenty of money to be had. According to Forbes, Notre Dame's football team profited $46 million last year!

At the highest level in football and basketball, college athletics are merely a minor league that the NFL and NBA don't have to pay for. Most players are placed in the easiest majors like Parks & Tourism Management in an attempt to ensure their continued eligibility. Graduation rates are so low that the NCAA was forced to pass a rule that takes away scholarships from teams with low academic performances.

But what about the other sports, you might ask? Money doesn't rule the day in olympic sports, right? A lot of the decisions that are made regarding the cash cows (football and men's basketball) have trickle-down effects. Ask the Saint John's women's soccer team if their trip to Tampa to take on South Florida in a CONFERENCE MATCH made sense to them. Why are they in the same conference? Football and basketball. BIG East, indeed.

WB: My esteemed colleague has brought forth very compelling arguments that showcase the hypocrisy of the NCAA and the identity crisis that college sports have faced over the last few decades. Like the professional leagues and their battles with steroids, cheating and the criminal activity of their players, the college sports environment is not without its problems.

As Will pointed out, donors, sponsorship, play a major role in the ways that college athletes partake in their sports and in the ways that spectators view them. One of the greatest wrongs of college sports is that so many athletes are often put through the ringer of the big time program as their plays make millions for the University and the marketers and whoever else, and at the end of the day, they are thrown out with a substandard education and no compensation of their complete worth to the institution.

But, the college game is fighting back. Schools like Clemson have raised the academic standards for recruited football players, meaning that these high school football studs cannot skip high school classes in lieu of their 40 time. The NCAA's punishments for substandard graduation rates are finally beginning to have some bite as major athletic programs lose donors and interests as their image becomes sullied.

College sports have been criticized for being hypocritical. Yet, at their best, in schools like Davidson, Presbyterian College, Williams and Amherst, they remain fully a function of the institution's goal of educating the mind and the body. At their worst, college athletics are nothing worse than a minor professional league with an identity crisis, not unlike major professional leagues who continue to battle with the moral issues of steroids, gambling, and high-stakes contract disputes. Just because college athletics can often sink to the level of professional sports does not mean that pro sports are any better.

Finally, college athletics have the potential for a particular fan-to-sport relationship that professional teams can never match. While individuals can certainly form very strong bonds to their local or regional pro sports team, no form of fan affiliation can ever trump the experience of being a student in a college or university.

You can "be" a Washington Redskin by living in or around D.C. You can take that fandom with you by purchasing merchandise, satellite plans and knowing the rosters. But that sort of fan relationship does not compare to the level of affinity and bond that one builds by pulling for the school which you attend or attended. Those athletes represent you not by your own choosing but by something more organic. Your relationship with them is tied up with more than just the brand of that particular team. They become your face to a wider community and you become their heartbeat within your own community. Professional sports cannot ever reproduce that same feeling, now matter how many sweatshirts one has or however long someone's family has pulled for a team.

WR: OK, so we'll admit that both levels have their issues. My problem with college athletics is how the business side hides behind the facade of academics. What was the fans' response when your beloved Clemson increased the academic standards for football players? Complete outrage. Many threatened to pull back their IPTAY contributions. To them, winning the ACC is more of a priority than preserving the integrity of the academics. (See this website for more information.)

I think your feeling on fandom is more a product of your upbringing than anything. If you were born in Boston (a pro sports town), you might feel differently. But, you were born in a state with no pro sports teams. And you currently live in a town with really bad NBA and NFL teams that are hard to cheer for. Would you feel as devoted to your college team had you gone to Western Carolina?

A couple more comments...professional leagues, by their nature, have better players. Why would you not want to see the best of the best compete?

Also, many of the major champions in college sports are chosen by subjective measures. Most NCAA tournament participants are chosen and seeded by a committee, not by their record. And don't get me started on the ridiculousness of the BCS.

WB: Since we're on the subject of the Southeast and its relationship with pro sports teams, let's examine that a little more closely. You argue that I like college sports better because a) I'm not in close proximity with a successful pro franchise and b) I have been around some reasonably successful college programs, the alma mater of my Dad (Clemson) and my own school (Davidson).

But growing up, I was always a huge fan of the Atlanta Braves and the Carolina Panthers. Those franchises were pretty successful in their own right, and yet the Braves always had the reputation of having lack-luster fanbases. Between 1992 and 2004, Atlanta was just as successful and had as many stars as anyone in MLB outside of the Yankees, and yet they never had much of a rabid fanbase (compared to teams like the Cubs or Red Sox). Southerners could not wrap themselves around professional sports, even when the teams won. Yet I loved College Baseball growing up. I loved watching the Citadel and College of Charleston and their magical runs to the Super Regional. Colleges in the South had great baseball teams with loyal fanbases. Why did that not translate to a feverish following of the Braves?

And what about the Panthers? Even during their runs to the Super Bowl and NFC championship game, there was always something missing at those games. They needed a pep band...the fans needed some chants...the cheerleaders needed to look a little bit less like strippers. When the Panthers went back to being a .500 team, Southerners had no problem with it. They always liked their Georgia Bulldogs or South Carolina Gamecocks or Clemson Tigers better anyway.

Now that I reflect on it, I believe that Will is upbringing has influenced my love of college sports. I have had the privilege of growing up in a part of the country where college sports first originated. I have been immersed in some of the oldest traditions and legacies of success in all of America's college sports. We don't need that pro stuff down here. And when we've gotten it, and even when it was successful, we realized that we like the college stuff better. And for good reason.

WR: It's clear we value different things. While I definitely appreciate watching a game in a great atmosphere, I've never been one to participate so it probably doesn't carry as much weight with me. I'd much rather watch a game sitting down so I can pay attention to what's going on in the field/court. To me, the reasons you like college sports more (a pep band, etc) are smoke and mirrors to cover up a mediocre product.


Anonymous said...

The shame is that both of you have Davidson educations and you're both full of hot air!

At least one Will has had the common sense to "marry up". Heaven knows what she was thinking :)

Anonymous said...

I'm very disappointed to see a photo of a Clemson football game on your website.

Most disappointed, indeed.


Anonymous said...

WR you hit this right on he button. It makes me want to puke when people argue that college sports are better than pros sports, all of their arguments have nothing to do with the game itself.