Are You Being Exploited By March Madness?
Nathaniel Friedman
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I totally agree, from decades of being a sports columnist at The New York Times. Almost all big-time “programs” have had scandals and abuses. I’ve been on many campuses where basketball and football players live separate lives as unpaid laborers, most of them unprepared for life after sports.

My very low opinion of the N.C.A.A. would be even lower if I had not spent the last few decades witnessing FIFA, the world soccer body, now in major legal trouble. Okay, FIFA is worse than the N.C.A.A.

I have often asked college presidents the value of big-time football to education. They mumble something about getting people on campus in the fall, raising school spirit. I came to think that most presidents, so-called “advisors” and “academic counselors” board members, some enabling faculty plus boosters and coaches were conducting a scam, assuming the public is stupid. Meanwhile, non-athlete students get cheated of energy and attention.

Part of my bias is that I attended one school that blended successful sports with actual education — in the late ‘50’s at Hofstra on Long Island, then a small commuter college, whose best attraction was a drama department and an annual Shakespearean festival.

I recently wrote an ode to those long-ago times for another web site. The crux of my article is that Hofstra made its athletes pass the same courses everybody else took. I know, because I was the student publicist, working my way through college at $1 an hour by keeping stats and calling in scores to the papers. I was in class with many of the athletes, who would grumble because the teacher kept referring to “symbolism” in writing — but they had to pass the course if they expected to play next semester.

Guys flunked off all the time. One year Butch Van Breda Kolff, the great basketball coach, had to recruit into intramurals to find enough players to finish out the season. Butch won some games using a football player, a baseball player and an ROTC officer.

But we had good teams. In my senior year the football team was 9–0 and the basketball team was 23–1. Many of my friends went on to have good careers, I suspect because they were held up to the norms of a fine young school.

A dozen of us still meet for lunch periodically, including Stephen Dunn, a zone-busting jump shooter who even played a year in the Eastern League and later become a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet.

Would that long-ago and far-away model work today? Hofstra University gave up football in 2009 because it was losing money; Hofstra was building a medical school which sounds like good priorities to me. Hofstra’s basketball team just concluded a very good season in the Colonial Athletic Conference. And when I visit the athletic department these days, I love the presence of confident female athletes, unlike in my pre-Title IX time.

I respected the little commuter college I attended for combining sports and education the right way. I’m the first to admit; that was another time.

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