Hoop Nightmares

February 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Recruiting college athletes probably wasn’t funny even when Comden and Green made fun of it in “Pass the Football” in Wonderful Town in 1953.. The former college hero, Wreck, sings*:
Couldn’t spell a lick,
Couldn’t do arithmetic;
One and one made three,
Thought that dog was c-a-t,

But I could pass that football
Like nothin’ you have ever seen. . . .

I couldn’t even tell red from green,
Get those verbs through my bean,
But I was buddies with the dean
Like nothin’ you have ever seen.
And now Binghamton. It wasn’t football, it was basketball, and it wasn’t the dean, it was the president. And Wreck, unlike the scholar athletes at Binghamton, wasn’t selling crack or using stolen debit cards. That on top of no-show courses, plagiarized papers, and lesser academic offenses.

But why? Academically, Binghamton had elevated itself to star position in the SUNY system. It was getting many of the New York’s brightest students. What would a Division I basketball team add? Why did President De Fleur feel that having a good basketball team was so important? And why, in this effort, did she take Jerry Tarkanian as a role model?

Did she think that a great team would improve the school’s finances? If so, she was not looking at the evidence. Most men’s basketball programs (football too) bring in less money than they cost.

There’s a larger institutional story here, and it’s been told before. It starts with this odd amalgam of sports and higher learning, and it has grown according to its own internal logic. It’s sort of like our “system” of health care. If we were starting from scratch, would anyone propose what we now have as a good way to provide health care to a nation? If we were starting over with our institutions of higher learning, would anyone propose that universities house professional-level competitive sports programs, with all the demands these make on the athletes and the institution?

*The song is best in context. Unfortunately, the most listenable version I could find on YouTube is a concert version at a rather torpid tempo by Simon Rattle. I know I should have hung this post on a peg more up to date than an ancient Broadway musical, but I just saw South Pacific (1949) last night.

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