My favorite time of the year as a sports fan is March Madness.  I find college basketball far more interesting than the NBA, and the NCAA tournament, especially the opening weekend, is unsurpassed for drama and the unexpected (all those who picked Florida Gulf Coast to make the Sweet Sixteen, raise your hand).

I never fill out a bracket because I don’t want my betting interests conflicting with my rooting interests.  I like underdogs, and am particularly drawn to good academic schools with competitive teams like Davidson, Butler, and Bucknell.  Like everyone in Richmond, I follow Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams, and this year I am enjoying the success of Wichita State.  Their coach, Gregg Marshall, played at Randolph-Macon when I taught there, and I think (but may be imagining) that I had him in class.

One of the big stories from the first weekend of the tournament was that a university both older and better known than Florida Gulf Coast won its first-ever NCAA tournament game.  On Thursday night 14th-seeded Harvard, the champions of the Ivy League (which doesn’t give athletic scholarships) upset New Mexico 68-62.  An article in the on-line magazine Slate, though, questions whether Harvard’s success is a victory for the forces of athletic purity or a sign that it has gone to the dark side when it comes to big-time athletics. 

Under coach Tommy Amaker, former star at Duke and head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan, Harvard has become a player in recruiting the kind of talent that hasn’t historically gone to the Ivy League, including two players who had to withdraw from school last spring after their involvement in the cheating scandal that rocked Harvard Yard.  Harvard’s rise in the college basketball world has led to concerns about recruiting tactics and admissions standards, but the biggest cause other than Amaker’s hiring is Harvard’s financial aid policy enabling students from low-income families to attend without having to pay.  If those students are athletes, they receive need-based financial aid comparable to receiving a full athletic scholarship.

It is clear that whatever issues Harvard may have with its basketball program pale when viewed against the landscape of Division 1 athletics, a world where madness isn’t limited to March.

The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice identifies athletic recruiting as a “recognized exception,” but it increasingly seems that athletics has become a recognized exception to the values that otherwise guide higher education. Last month the University of Alabama offered a football scholarship to an 8th grader.  Last spring the University of Kentucky won the NCAA basketball championship with a lineup treating “college” basketball as a warmup for the NBA and no intention of getting a college education.  The Penn State scandal had its roots in the powerful hold that the football program has on the University community, and one consequence of the fraud in one academic department at the University of North Carolina was keeping athletes eligible.  I don’t for a minute believe that those are isolated incidents.

The challenges extend to the secondary side, where athletes change schools, sometimes annually, in search of playing time and a college scholarship.  A growing concern is the number of students who “reclassify” in order to play an extra year in high school.  That is a topic for a separate post, and there are legitimate developmental and educational reasons for students to do an extra year, but the widespread nature of the practice is troubling.  A year ago the top athlete at a rival school, a rising senior with a strong academic record, transferred to a league rival, reclassified as a junior, and shortly afterward verbally committed to play football at Stanford.

My college advisor was a Philosophy professor who also served as chair of the faculty committee on athletics.  I share with him the belief that athletics have educational value, that the playing field is its own classroom, as well as the belief that athletics aspires to physical excellence in the way that philosophy aspires to the excellence of the mind.

Ethics is about ideals, and it is hard to square educational ideals with the reality of big-time college sports.  Athletic programs long ago became powerful avenues for marketing and institutional branding rather than education, and there is too much money at stake for that genie to return to the bottle.  It is probably time to end the student-athlete myth and pay athletes as university public relations employees.  That would not end the abuses, just the hypocrisy.

Years ago the President of the University of Oklahoma stated that he was trying to build a university the football program could be proud of.  That would be funny if it were only a joke.  Athletics should support the educational mission of a college and not the other way around.  Unfortunately in 2013 that view looks more and more like madness.