College football erases racial, political divides and thrives despite poor management in some places

Ban football? Sure, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) should end its moneypit of a football program. However, it doesn’t follow that every school’s athletic program is a waste of time, resources or fails to deliver important benefits to the college campus and atmosphere.

However, that is the precise argument used by Buzz Bissinger in a piece for the May 5 edition of The Wall Street Journal. Bissinger writes, “In more than 20 years I’ve spent studying the issue, I have yet to hear a convincing argument that college football has anything do with what is presumably the primary purpose of higher education: academics. That’s because college football has no academic purpose. Which is why it needs to be banned.”

No academic purpose? Well, colleges have many activities for students with little to do with academics. Colleges small and large hold pizza parties, support special interest clubs, and allow religious or political organizations to function on campus. Oh, and don’t forget the ubiquitous presence of fraternities and sororities on every major university campus in the United States. These extracurricular activities build on the underlying academic function of the college environment.

These could all be distractions. But, so what?

Life is about more than work, and so too is college. Leisure has an important place. Why shouldn’t students and alumni enjoy a leisure activity that unites everyone—regardless of race, class or politics—behind the university? How often do you see people of different political parties cheer together? How often do you see race truly ignored in this country? Yet, at football games, we see all of this. Why get rid of something with such a salutary effect?

Bissinger’s answer is the demands of the global marketplace spurred by the pressures of globalization. He writes, “Football only provides the thickest layer of distraction in an atmosphere in which colleges and universities these days are all about distraction, nursing an obsession with the social well-being of students as opposed to the obsession that they are there for the vital and single purpose of learning as much as they can to compete in the brutal realities of the global economy.”

Last time I checked, American universities are the best in the world. Even Fareed Zakaria in The Post-American World noted that U.S. universities remain the best in the globalized marketplace for turning out Ph.D.s. The world’s brightest students want to study here, and many end up living here because our universities reflect the values of American society.

Zakaria described why American universities are so different from the rest of the world, “While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization—whether in math or poetry—it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think. It is surely this quality that goes some way to explaining why America produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers…It is America, not Japan, that produces the most Noble Prize winners.” (p. 193).

Bissinger’s also advances two additional arguments against college football, which center on the facts that too many programs lose money and that some people cheat.

These same arguments could be made against starting a new business—too many fail—or making students write research papers—it is too easy to buy one off the Internet. However, these reasons are not sufficient to end entrepreneurship or to eliminate research papers since both these efforts produce colossal gains in wealth and learning.

Just because idiots run some football programs, it does not follow that all football programs should be shuttered. Instead, focus on fixing the programs beset with poor planning and faulty funding schemes. Football thrives in the Southeastern Conference because of how proper management and passionate fans.

Bissinger takes issue with donations to athletic programs as a sign of misplaced American priorities. Bizzinger attacks Nike founder Phil Knight for giving money to build a $41.7 million academic center for the Oregon Ducks while the state deals with tuition hikes and budget cuts.

Memo to Bissinger, you give your money where you want and let the rest of America do what it wants with its own money. Phil Knight worked hard to build a business and I’m sure he knows better how to spend it than you or anyone else.

Bissinger’s arguments against football are unpersuasive. His arguments ignore the dynamic American system of higher education—that is the greatest in the world—and assumes that bad management in some places should be punished in every place. What a horrible leap to take.

For another take on Bissinger’s comments check out this post at Bama Hammer.