Friday, November 16, 2007

Are you ready for some football?

I don't hate people from the state of Michigan or anything like that, I just really want the Buckeyes to beat U of M's football team this weekend. But it's hard to fit all that onto a cookie, so that's why I had to condense it into a more concise phrase. I made these cookies for game day in 1996, and everybody loved them -- not only because of the rude message but because my mom's sugar cookie recipe kicks ass (see below for recipe).

I wasn't going to write about football this week, but I've been thinking a lot about it and couldn't hold back this post. A lot of my readers are fellow academics and may wonder why a person who fancies herself an intellectual would admit so proudly and publicly to being a football fan. Some feel that football programs do harm to acadmic programs at universities because they drain money away from academic budgets, or exploit student athletes, or put too much emphasis on athletics at the expense of the real intellectual purpose of universities, or create rivalries that result in nastiness and violence. Or all of the above. Not to mention the fact that it is somewhat of a barbaric sport when you think about it. So, why do I still love college football?

Well, for starters, I don't love college football, I love Ohio State football, and Cal football to a lesser extent. But University of Illinois football, for example, can go straight to hell. So let's talk about Ohio State football. First of all, Ohio State's athletic department is fully self-funded, drawing no money from the general budget. In fact, its athletic program actually makes a profit (this was true of only 19 schools last year, according to this article). Some of the revenues are given over to the academic side; for example, the athletic department has donated $5 million to the massive Main Library renovation project that is currently underway. Yes, $5 million is a drop in the bucket ("the bucket" being a $109 million athletics budget). Still, I'm sure the library appreciated that $5 million just the same.

As for student athletes, yes, it does seem to be the case that many of them don't get a real college experience because they are pressured to excel in athletics. I'm not sure if I agree that college football players are being exploited since they get a free education and plenty of perks and probably wouldn't or couldn't go to the NFL even if they were allowed to do so straight out of high school -- but in any case, Michael Lewis' proposal to pay college football players for their services is a total loser in my opinion. King Kaufman thinks Lewis' article is "Well-reasoned, well-argued, and just plain right"; I couldn't disagree more (as is often the case with me and KK). First of all, it is wrong and downright cynical to think that no football player actually wants to go to college; for many of these kids the scholarship therefore has a real value. Also, I suspect that even if the NFL allowed high school students to enter the draft, the vast majority would go to college anyway, so I'm not sure the rules are really preventing a lot of people from earning money in the NFL. It seems to me that the exploitation argument really comes down to the fact that athletes have to spend a lot of time in the gym and at practice in order to be good enough to keep their scholarships, and this detracts from their education. But it this is all a matter of degree -- what about a kid who has to do work-study to get financial aid -- is that better than the athlete's situation because of the smaller number of work hours? At least athletes can enroll in sports for credit (not true for work-study) so that during the term when the sport is in season, they can take a smaller number of academic courses. At Ohio State, for example, I believe a player can sign up for 2 credit hours of football, meaning they only have to take two 5-hour academic courses during fall quarter and still be full-time (12 hours per quarter). So football gets in the way of the number of courses a player can reasonably complete during the quarter, but I doubt it seriously interferes with success in the courses. Two courses isn't very many, no matter what else you have going on in your life.

So I am not so sure about the exploitation angle to begin with. But on a practical level, if football programs gave away all their revenues to the players, how would universities fund the rest of their athletic teams? This would basically impose a death sentence on non-profitable sports, unless schools were to pay for their non-profitable sports out of general university budgets (another terrible idea since that would take money away from academics). In any case, to the extent that there is an exploitation problem, it is likely be dealt with thoughtfully at Ohio State in the coming years, now that they have a president who has very publicly and radically addressed this very issue at another institution.

I am not sure what constitutes "too much emphasis on athletics," but I strongly disagree with the notion that an emphasis on athletics precludes or diminishes the acadmic purpose of an institution. Football helps attract students to Ohio State, including plenty of academic-minded students. I personally have to say that my decision to go to Ohio State probably had a lot to do with the fact that I grew up on Ohio State football, and I have plenty of friends who were excellent students and contributed a lot to the academic environment at Ohio State and who I suspect decided to go to Ohio State at least partly because of football. A lot of them were in the marching band with me, and this was the most demanding, most time-intensive, most fun element in my (and, I suspect, their) college experience. I feel I got an outstanding education, but I would have to say that the biggest reason I look back fondly on my college years is the band (and therefore, indirectly, football). Football games also provide an excuse for alumni to come back and visit the campus, whether for Homecoming or reunions or whatever, and this keeps people connected and also encourages alumni to donate to the university. So contrary the notion that the "football school" label diminishes the value of the education, I'd say there are ways in which the football tradition substantially enhances and reinforces the academics and people's general goodwill towards the institution.

Finally, about this rivalry thing. I think the vast majority of people don't take it personally, they just get into the rivalry for the fun and the tradition. To the extent that things get nasty, there are often cultural differences that the football rivalry is merely standing in for (not causing). For example, when a USC kid goes to a game wearing a t-shirt that says "My maid went to UCLA," this is plain old classism; ditto when Stanford kids chant "State school!" at the Cal game. In the case of Ohio State vs. Michigan, both are huge state schools with (I think) similar academic standards and similar cultures. And people from Ohio and Michigan are, I think, pretty similar (except that people from Michigan have funny vowels and they go around doing this weird thing with their hand to show where in the state they are from if someone asks). So this rivalry pretty much centers around old grudges about games from years (or even decades) gone by. The Big Ten title is almost always on the line in that game, and often someone's national championship hopes as well. There are many of us who felt that winning last year's game when Ohio State was #1 in the nation and Michigan was #2 was the ultimate prize, and that the national championship game was almost anticlimactic (sadly, it seems possible that the team felt this way too, which may have contributed to the outcome). Michigan will certainly have that game on their minds on Saturday, when both teams will have their pride on the line (in addition to the Big Ten title) since both teams lost last week. What I will have on my mind is "FUCK MICHIGAN" (though I mean that in the nicest possible way).

And now for the cookie recipe. These are the best sugar cookies -- no, the best cookies -- I have ever eaten. My mom got this recipe in her Home Ec class in 1962, and now I pass it along to you. A note about butter: the original recipe calls for 1 c. shortening instead of the butter, and the version with shortening does taste slightly better, but I couldn't in good conscience tell you to put shortening in your cookies given my own well-known anti-shortening position. But you do what you want...

Home Ec Christmas Cookies

2 sticks butter, softened
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
4 T. milk
2 t. vanilla
5 c. sifted flour
1/2 t. baking soda (mom says she heaps the 1/2 t. a little)
1 t. salt

Cream the butter and sugar. Add beaten eggs, vanilla, and milk, and mix again. Sift flour, soda, and salt together and add to mixture. Mix. Chill overnight. Roll out on floured board and cut out with cookie cutters. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 8 - 10 minutes at 325 degrees. The key is not to overbake them -- bake until the tops are dry (not shiny anymore), but no longer than that (i.e. don't let them get even a little bit browned). Then frost with your choice of frosting and sprinkles... they taste great with the canned Betty Crocker stuff, FYI, but again I am not going to explicitly recommend this because there's partially hydrogenated what-have-you in there... so make your own decision...


meg said...

Callin' me out, huh?

I can't respond in detail -- I'm at a conf about to head off to supper -- but was it a "class difference" (rather than an ugly side effect of football rivalry) when the Berkeley frat beat the crap out of and hospitalized the Stanford mascot when they found him alone after a game?

And what's your position on the perennial post-game riots?

Mary said...

Hey Meg--

Not calling you out per se, since I've had variations on our conversation with others (including an interesting one with KF last night). But certainly our discussion of these issues contributed to my thinking about them.

As for the mascot incident, one could cite many other instances of violence like this, but I wonder about a kid (or group of kids) who will beat the crap out of someone regardless of whether their teams have a rivalry. I'm no psychologist, but I question whether a football rivalry would actually incite an otherwise non-violent person to violence.

And, just to turn your question around (because I can't resist), are you claiming the "state school" thing and the "my maid went to..." thing *aren't* classist?

As for post-game riots, it would be useful to know which ones you're talking about. Ohio State has been plagued by these in the past as you probably know, but these were drastically reduced in recent years by strict enforcement of open container laws (this made OSU's recently departed president Karen Holbrook quite unpopular, but it did apparently work). It has generally been the case that the people involved in the rioting were not students, but just rowdy locals. This doesn't excuse the rioting, but it does mean that it's inaccurate to say that football causes the students to go nuts and riot (not that you said that, but some people do make that claim and it's not supported by evidence, at least in the Ohio State case).

Shhh said...

Go Wolverines!!!

And f*!& OSU!! Heh heh heh...

I, too, love these college football rivalries (and have no problem admitting it). I grew up with football, and I love it. As a former college athlete myself, I have strong feelings about the importance of college athletics. For me, playing on a team contributed to my education in more ways than I ever could have imagined. I was immediately part of a community that shared a common interest, and so when I had trouble with some aspect of my life, be it academic or otherwise, I always had someone there to help me. I remember countless afternoons/evenings of long bus rides to and from games discussing politics, religion, and history with my teammates. We talked about whatever we were studying in class at the time in an attempt to better understand what the hell it was that our professors were trying to convey to us (even when our coach wanted us to be "visualizing" the game that awaited us). I learned a great deal from my teammates, both on and off the field, and I wouldn't trade my experiences with them for anything.

As far as rivalries are concerned, even though I went to a Division III school that couldn't offer scholarships, the same kinds of rivalries existed between/among schools, albeit on a smaller scale. There was mocking on all levels, be they classist, geographic, or otherwise. I have to say that even in high school the same kinds of things occurred. I remember chants like, "That's all right, that's ok, you can work for us someday!" (I went to a private school with a lot of rich elitists.) They always made me cringe for (at least) two reasons. (1) It was admitting that we were losing, and as an athlete on the court or field at the time, it really sucked to hear the crowd admit to this. (2) It's just embarrassing. It's horrible - in oh-so-many ways. I'm sure I don't need to explain.

I don't know about the ugly Berkeley-Stanford incident that Meg references in her comment, but I do know that there are far worse things that have occurred in Europe after soccer/football games, which suggests that the problems arising from athletic rivalries in this country in college athletics are part of a larger problem in sports in general. There are always going to be fanatics, regardless of the sport and regardless of the place. There are frequently riots and/or violence after major athletic events around the world. Does this mean we should put an end to competitive sports altogether?

I hope not.

meg said...

Stanford's various catcalls at games (and not just at Berkeley) are almost always classist. It's pretty vile. But then I'm the one against the machine of college athletics.

And that's what bears emphasizing: I think college athletics per se is a fine thing; it's only deleterious when it becomes a big institution-driving machine, like football at many schools or basketball at somewhat fewer.

One can't help but marvel at how money is oddly correlated with fan violence, both here (in big college-football towns) and in Europe.

European footie was pretty calm until the players started making huge piles of money. Perhaps the money drew the thugs away from some other outlet, but it seems far more likely that money pushed the fervent over a line.

Mary said...

Sorry about your Wolverines, Shhh... better luck next year! :D

Meg, as for the money argument, I am sympathetic to the notion that money is the root of many evils, but I am not sure I understand the connection between an athletic team bringing in large revenues and its fans being rowdy. It seems to me that Joe Popcorn-Eater in the stands doesn't necessarily know anything about how much money the team brings in and isn't directly affected by it. So, what is it that you think happened to push the fans 'over a line' when soccer players started being paid more? And if it's all about player salaries, what's the mechanism behind the proposed money-violence connection in college sports where players aren't paid?

And one final question, not to pick nits, but what does it mean for sports to be 'institution-driving'? Do you just mean when the reputation of a given school is associated with the success of its athletic programs? Most of the schools we're talking about are Research I institutions that are likely more heavily influenced by grant money than the athletic agenda, if indeed one can say there is any one thing that 'drives' an institution.