Monday, August 15, 2011

Sports, College Sports, and College

Some great questions everyone. FBC asks,

"In baseball, is there a difference between a 'hit and run' and a 'run and hit'? If so, how would each fit into a coach's strategy or philosophy of the game? (Just had our family reunion and this topic came up......again. I need a new argument to make)."
The idea is that because getting a hit in baseball is so difficult, if you have a runner on first and fewer than two outs, a double play is always a possibility. If you start the runner from first on the pitcher's movement, it does two things: (a) gives the runner a head start making it less likely he'll be doubled up at second, thereby giving you a runner in scoring position, and (b) on seeing the steal attempt, it pulls one of the middle infielders to second base, creating a hole for the batter to hit into, so what would have otherwise would have been an out or double play ball, becomes a single.

This has been known for over a hundred years as the "hit and run," but inevitably someone who wants to be seen as too smart for his garters will inevitably say, "Why do they call it a 'hit and run' when you run first then hit? It should be the 'run and hit.'" To shut this person up, as often as not, we now call it the "run and hit." But it's the same play. There are some who claim the difference is that in the run and hit, the batter is given the autonomy to take a bad pitch, making it into a straight steal, whereas in the hit and run the batter needs to make contact to foul off bad pitches to shield (usually a slower) runner. But I don't think that usage is primary in the linguistic community.

JB asks,
"College sports: Pay for play or not?"
It's an interesting question, because in a couple of senses we already have pay for play college athletics. Believe it or not, I was a division I scholarship athlete. I was a lacrosse player -- I know, I know, it seems strange because I give the appearance of being able to read. My room and board (or, in some cases, room and bored) were paid for me as an enticement to attend my university and play on their team. Division I scholarships are a form of payment. But then there is also the under the table "gifts" that are given to some athletes -- usually football or basketball players. We have a scandal like clockwork every two years where some major program gets busted. Why not just bring the black market into the light and allow pay for play?

College athletics began as an extra-curricular activity for students, something to do in the afternoons as a diversion. the health benefits, camaraderie, and school unity is generates is a good thing. But it has become something completely different. College athletics now play three functions. First, they are cash cows. For major division I programs, they lead to lucrative tv contracts and ticket and merchandise sales. Second, and this is the more important one, they are advertising. High school students selecting a college are perhaps the world's worst consumers. They know nothing about the academics at an institution. A store I've heard of will generally be a better store, so it must also be true that school I've heard of is probably better than one I haven't heard of. But what's the only way most non-academics hear of colleges or universities? Sports. Having a notable sports team will increase out of state applicants significantly -- the ones who pay more in tuition. Finally, college sports are the farm systems for professional sports. They develop the talent pool and given them their training in fundamentals of the game at a high level.

So, given that you now have college athletics playing a significant non-academic role, why maintain the facade that these are scholar-athletes in the mold of the 19th century? Why not just pay them for their services and not have to have them fake their way through special classes designed just to nurse athletes through college? I think there are two reasons.

First, while many of them have no business in a college classroom, for others it is their only chance to get a college education. It would seem unfair to the athletes to take it away from them. The argument is that it would open up seats to those who would have otherwise have been admitted. Of course, these would be students at the lower end who were on the bubble and, let's be honest, these are often those who are not the most academically inclined and do not contribute much to the intellectual climate of a campus.

Second, it would draw even more money away from the true mission of the institutions. It puts them explicitly in the business of producing an entertainment product and as it gets more lucrative, more resources go to it. It splits the institution in a way that would likely damage its educational work even more deeply. Forcing the athletics to remain in a number two position, whether it is real or not, I think is better for the academics.

SteveD asks,
"Do all Americans have the right to a college education? Has the goal of college for everyone played a role in the decline of elementary through high school education?"
To the first, all other things being equal, the answer would be no. It ought to be a right that the community prepare you to be a contributing member and this traditionally did not require a college degree. But the place of college has certainly changed in the last century. I think a combination of the GI bill making college more common for those in the workplace and the shift to a service and technology-based economy has made college into the final four years of high school. No longer is it a place to become an intellectual, but rather it provides necessary training for becoming a part of the middle-class and for making significant advances that help drive our national economy. As such, if we have the right to the education needed to benefit from and benefit the society, it does seem that with the permanent loss of so many blue-collar jobs -- and with the remaining ones becoming more technical -- that some sort of post-secondary education does fall into the right to education.

But this transformation of higher learning into vo-tech training has certainly had negative consequences for education writ large -- in part that many people no longer say things like "writ large." We see primary and secondary ed as preparation for college which is, in turn, nothing but preparation for a job. It is entirely utilitarian and we have replaced the search for wisdom with skill acquisition which impoverishes our students and our society.

But I don't think it is the "college for all" proposition that is operative here. Given the way the world has changed, it seems that more education will be necessary. I think we do need, however, a movement away from the sort of anti-intellectualism that poisons our culture and that this would change how we view education. when "elite" is a dirty word, it means that the educated are actually the uneducated, that those who think carefully and have a historical and philosophical sense should be disregarded. That reason and thoughtfulness are vices, not virtues. Yes, schooling is one place that this is instantiated, but I think that it is as a result of larger social forces and not merely something in our educational system. How do we change that? Oooh. That's another question.

More tomorrow.