I gather the Super Bowl is coming up. I can’t be bothered to check for sure. My level of interest in this is somewhere past nonexistent and well into revulsion. Suffice it to say, I disagree with an xkcd comic (figure 1) that has recently appeared:
Apparently, it’s time for a review. Back in 2009, I happened to be driving down the road:
I saw a billboard today which read against a football field-like green AstroTurf background, “I follow football to freedom.” I thought, how sad.
Football as freedom means “freedom” within the confines of a field marked off with boundaries, which you are “out of bounds” if you cross, and in which players who move on their own time may be “off sides.” For a fan, actually following the game, it means “freedom” within the confines of a stadium, cheering on cue, aligning your own goals with the crowd around you; or within the bounds of the small screen often writ large with projection systems. The billboard is an advertisement for the National Football League on ESPN, so it clearly referred to the latter.
Freedom means different things to different people. To libertarians it means a freedom from constraints on action. To fundamentalists it means freedom from ideas that challenge their ideas. And for many fans, it means a respite from the pressures of a cruel world.
But football serves other purposes as well. Like the Boy Scouts, football puts people in uniform, conforming to a particular appearance. It teaches brutality, defining masculinity as physical performance and as toughness, “playing through the pain.” It teaches compliance; players who fail to follow instructions will likely find themselves sidelined. It ranks players by their physical capabilities; weaker players are also less likely to play.
Football thus values physical rather than intellectual performance, obedience rather than invention, and conformity rather than individual expression. It is, in short, perfect training for citizens of an authoritarian regime who are not to challenge authority and not to think for themselves. In later life, it serves as a relief, a harmless distraction from the oppression of a political and economic regime that rules through the fear of constant war and through long hours and numbing poverty.
Universities have been cutting spending on academics, that is, what they’re supposed to be teaching, and increasing spending on athletics, that is, what, I guess, attracts donors and prestige to the universities and, especially, to their administrations.
Athletics have become so important that the University of North Carolina has been facing a scandal over its so-called “athlete-scholars” who can barely read or write, and who are passed through classes that expect nearly nothing of them. The researcher who blew the whistle on all this has faced death threats and administrative actions to block her research. While UNC got all the attention,
University of Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney found that about 10% of revenue-sport athletes there were reading below a fourth-grade level. . . . After consulting with several academic experts, CNN filed public records requests and concluded that what [Mary] Willingham found at UNC and Gurney found at Oklahoma is also happening elsewhere. . . . Based on data from those requests and dozens of interviews, a CNN investigation revealed that most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level. Some had even higher percentages of below-threshold athletes.
Athletics have come, like the military, to be beyond challenge. Our universities increasingly exist to field football teams rather than for research or education. But unlike the military, where a small fraction of the population participates, and the rest of us cheer from afar, failing to subject the military to needed scrutiny, we adore “our” teams, that is, teams owned by very wealthy people and run for extravagant profits.
And despite the fact that professional and even amateur sports are a racket, fans are not regarded as suckers. They spend money on tickets, they spend money on clothing and helmets that resembles the uniforms and helmets the players wear, they buy endless doodads proclaiming their love, they buy huge television screens to watch the games. Consumerism reaches a level of ridiculousness that probably cannot be matched anywhere else in a ridiculously consumerist society.
This is, it seems, the way it is supposed to be, along with apple pie and fireworks on the Fourth of July. And we don’t even notice our own idiocy and the idiocy that surrounds us.
- Randall Munroe, “Super Bowl,” xkcd, n.d., http://xkcd.com/1480/↩
- David Benfell, “Following football to tyranny,” Not Housebroken, September 3, 2009, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=706↩
- L.V. Anderson, “Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs,” Slate, November 19, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/education/2013/11/death_of_duquesne_adjunct_margaret_mary_vojtko_what_really_happened_to_her.html; Kelly J. 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- Nick DeSantis, “U. of North Carolina Suspends Researcher’s Work on Athletes’ Literacy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 17, 2014, http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/u-ofth-carolina-suspends-researchers-work-on-athletes-literacy/71561; Mark Esposito, “Mary Willingham’s Reprieve,” Jonathan Turley, February 1, 2014, http://jonathanturley.org/2014/02/01/mary-willinghams-reprieve/; Colleen Flaherty, “Whistle-Blower Blocked,” Inside Higher Ed, January 20, 2014, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/20/uth-carolina-shuts-down-whistle-blower-athletes; Sara Ganim, “CNN analysis: Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” CNN, January 8, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/07/us/ncaa-athletes-reading-scores/; Sara Ganim, “Death threats and denial for woman who showed college athletes struggle to read,” CNN, January 14, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/09/us/ncaa-athletes-unc-response/; Sara Ganim, “UNC: We failed students ‘for years’,” CNN, January 29, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/28/us/ncaa-athletes-unc/; Reuters, “Athletes took fake classes at University of North Carolina, report shows,” Chicago Tribune, October 22, 2014, http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/chi-unc-fake-classes-20141022-story.html; Jack Stripling, “Widespread Nature of Chapel Hill’s Academic Fraud Is Laid Bare,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 23, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Widespread-Nature-of-Chapel/149603/; Jonathan Turley, “North Carolina Professor Under Fire For Disclosing Athletes Who Can Barely Read Or Write,” January 10, 2014, http://jonathanturley.org/2014/01/10/north-carolina-professor-under-fire-for-disclosing-athletes-who-can-barely-read-or-write/↩
- Sara Ganim, “CNN analysis: Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders,” CNN, January 8, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/07/us/ncaa-athletes-reading-scores/↩
- James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” Atlantic, January/February 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/12/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/↩