The Olympic Games were born of agon—struggle—among the ancient Greek city-states. In the modern era, the Games have likewise been used for geopolitical purposes. Hitler hoped the 1936 games would be a showcase for his Aryans’ awesome athletic skill. Terrorists used the Munich games in 1972 to strike at Israel. The U.S. boycotted the Moscow games in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets returned the snub four years later in Los Angeles.
Before Communism’s collapse, national honor was at stake in the Olympic Games. Today, frankly, who cares whether the United States’ 4 X 100 relay team beats Jamaica’s or Michael Phelps wins his 17th Olympic medal? Watching the first Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was slightly embarrassing. The games resembled competition only in the way Harlem Globetrotters’ games do. In fact, you’d have to go back to those ‘92 games to find the last time the United States didn’t lead all countries in medals won.
I guess I just naturally route for the underdog and, over the last two decades, that hasn’t been the United States. Or at least it hasn’t been until, perhaps, now.
According to the Washington Post, the number of Division I college wrestling programs is declining—from 146 in 1981-1982 to 80 today. Even more precipitously, during the same period, the number of Division I men’s gymnastics programs declined from 59 to 16.
As television revenue for basketball and football soared, investments followed in the hopes that returns would be great enough to help subsidize other sports. The only problem is that a football program’s margin for error is thin. A college football team can produce a great deal of revenue for its school, but the sport carries enormous overhead and there’s still no guarantee the investment will pay off in wins and trips to BCS bowl games. The need to make the investment pay off induces schools to turn blind eyes as their coaches cut ethical and academic corners.
Big-time college football is a market with an extremely high barrier to entry. Assuming a tuition of $50,000 annually, the 85 scholarships awarded to a school’s players will alone run $4,250,000 per year. Add in coaches’ salaries, football operations, locker and weight room facilities, travel, and, most significantly, the cost of building and maintaining a stadium that can hold up to, in cases of schools like Penn State and the University of Michigan, 100,000 fans, the investment required to compete becomes something beyond the reach of most colleges.
The most successful schools, like the University of Texas, are able to generate enough revenue through football to subsidize a school’s entire athletic budget. Fewer than 10% of all Division 1 public universities break even. The remaining 90% or so have athletic departments with operating deficits. The University of Maryland’s athletic department deficit is projected to reach $17 million by 2017. In response, the school is cutting eight varsity sports.
Football is high risk, high reward, for the players and for the schools. A football program can chew up huge chunks of a school’s athletic budget and, if, as in the case of Maryland, it doesn’t win, drag the budget down with it. But, at the same time, it seems the only way a school can ever hope to offer Olympic-quality varsity wrestling and gymnastics programs is to pursue BCS football glory and the riches that come with it.
Some have suggested that NCAA impose rules that require a minimum number of other men’s sports be offered in order to qualify to participate in BCS football. To do that, the federal government would need to reconfigure Title IX to exempt football, the sheer size of whose teams skew participation rates. The NCAA could also consider reducing the number of football scholarships schools offer from 85 to 53, which represents the number of active players NFL teams carry on their rosters at any one time.
Still, all of this would just be nibbling at the edges of the problem. Ultimately, if schools can’t find the revenue athletic departments need to support themselves, they’ll have to decide whether offering varsity athletics is central to their educational missions.
The university system in this country is the best in the world. In the US News and World Report’s 2011 ranking, American universities occupied 13 of the top 20 spots.
However, that system is unique for also supporting what is essentially a semi-professional system of athletic competition that detracts from the member schools’ educational missions. The goal of a university should be the molding of well-rounded human beings. Colleges don’t expend tens of millions of dollars to support glee clubs and orchestras, the pursuits of which are as essential to the creation of well-rounded individuals as football or basketball or wrestling or gymnastics.
Ultimately, athletes and the institutions that support them—be it a school, the USOC, or a professional franchise—must decide for themselves why it is they compete. Is it to win, to earn money, or to push oneself to one’s physical limits?
If the only goal is to win, then the systems that support our student athletes should be as amoral as a completely unfettered free-market. Whatever practices lead to winning should be embraced, and any inequality produced by the system is merely a byproduct of its success. European soccer leagues fall into this category, which is why, in most of them, no more than a handful of teams ever compete for a championship.
If the goal of an athletic program is to earn money, collective wisdom has, at least in the U.S., demonstrated that the more fans are engaged, the more money they’ll spend and so regulations are imposed to insure as many teams as possible remain competitive. With its revenue sharing system, the NFL is perhaps the most successful socialist enterprise in history.
But if the reason for athletic programs in colleges and universities is to offer students personal, physical challenges, we must ask ourselves if the structures and institutions we’ve built to support athletic enterprise are even necessary. Pushing oneself to one’s physical limit can, indeed, be a transcendent experience, whether you are alone or if millions of people are watching on television.
Soccer and basketball are the world’s two most popular sports, and for good reason. They are traditionally working class sports. Other than a ball, they don’t require equipment. There are no bats, clubs, gloves, sticks, masks, or pads. Moreover, you don’t need teammates to practice. If you’re a soccer player, find a wall, pick a spot and kick the ball at it over and over until you can hit the spot you choose every time. It is the individual pursuit that matters, and that allows an athlete to acquire muscle memory.
Today, there is a tendency to oversubscribe our children: Pop Warner football, A.A.U. basketball, Little League baseball, youth hockey. We believe the world has become a more dangerous place and so we don’t want our kids hanging by themselves down at the park. We feel better knowing what they are doing every second of every day. We want to make sure they have the edge when they apply to college, that they have the one skill that helps them stick out among the thousands of other applicants, that makes them, in the words of one admissions officer I once heard speak, not well-rounded, but well-oblong. It also doesn’t hurt if our kids are good enough to earn a scholarship and save us the $200,000 or so in tuition.
Think of it as a sort of Tiger mom syndrome writ societally large. But when we do that we don’t allow children to explore the world for themselves. The paths they trod are paths we’ve laid out for them, usually paths that are already well trod. There is no trail blazing. There is only packaging.
There are, among those who compete in the Olympics, athletes whose back stories are genuinely gripping. There’s no need to pump them up artificially. In 1964, Billy Mills, a Native American runner from Kansas, came out of nowhere to take gold in the 10,000 meters at the Tokyo games. His win was electrifying precisely because no one had heard of him. The time he ran that day was almost 50 seconds better than he had ever run before. It was the perfect confluence of athlete and moment that can make genuine competition so thrilling: a runner finding within himself on the world’s biggest stage a gear he didn’t know he had. There was no need to media-fy it, to produce it. The moment stood on its own.
One of the announcers that day, Dick Bank, famously started shrieking, “Look at Mills, look Mills,” as the runner came from behind on the final stretch. Bank had grabbed the microphone from lead announcer Bud Palmer in a moment of spontaneous excitement. It was the last race Bank ever called for NBC.
But therein lies so much of the problem with the Olympics: their overproduction. There is little room for spontaneity in the two weeks of human interest stories that intersperse the coverage. As spectators, we’re no longer allowed to enjoy genuine moments of athletic transcendence. Bob Costas is there to explain to us why what we’re about to watch, or what we just did watch, is transcendent. Billy Mills’ story will have been shared with us, again and again, long before he ever sprints to the front of the pack and, then, after we’ve watched him cross the finish line, we’ll be reminded of it yet one more time.
The 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, distinguished between two kinds of self-love, amour de soi, which, in simplified terms, is an internally generated self-love, and amour propre, which is that self-love only generated by how we think we are perceived by others. To him, the former was a self-love associated with a certain spiritual innocence, the latter with society’s corruption.
Today, we live in an age when, due to the advent of social media, the amour propre reigns supreme. We insist on updating our family and friends on every last mundane thing we do during our daily lives. It is no longer enough to live our lives, we must also step outside our lives to comment on them. We have each of us become our own Bob Costas. We feel the need to counteract the obscurity in which we toil by creating our very own human interest stories.
This is, perhaps, what comes of living during an era when the free market is ascendant. Everything and everyone can be commidified, but, for an item to sell, it must be packaged properly. Hence, the burgeoning market for personal branding consultants. Hence, the dawn of Klout, a site wholly dedicated to measuring an individual’s social media influence. It is only fitting that, according to Klout’s formula, Justin Beiber is right now the most influential person in the social media universe.
But, again, why do we do what we do? Is it to earn money, to be the best, or to be able to brag about being the best so that others will recognize us for it? In other words, do we get up in the morning and go to work to feed our amour de soi or amour propre?
I want to live in a world full of people who do what they do because they want to be the best at it, not simply because it will earn them enough money to live life comfortably. That even the most rapacious Wall Street trader does what he does not out of sheer greed, but a professional commitment to excellence in a field that just happens to pay handsomely. Unfortunately, I doubt it is true.
Muhammad Ali once said that if he were a garbageman, he’d have been the world’s greatest garbageman, that he’d have picked up more garbage than anyone had ever seen, but I don’t know if that’s true. The effort and commitment required to be the heavyweight champion of the world, though great, are more than offset by the glory that comes with being recognized as the world’s best boxer. The effort and commitment required to be the best garbageman are probably no less great. The question is whether the payoff is the same.
I spent five years teaching, a job that, despite its many frustrations, I found intensely satisfying. I worked 12-hour days preparing lessons, differentiating instruction, grading papers, calling parents, completing administrative paperwork, and mentoring students. I suspect that if I were a better person I would still be teaching. I left the profession because, though I believed I was an excellent teacher, the only people who knew it were the 25 kids who occupied my classroom every day and, unfortunately, I allowed my amour propre to get the better of my amour de soi. It wasn’t enough for me to know I was a good teacher. I needed other people to know it, too.
I realize that all of this makes me a hypocrite and, in my more cynical moments, leads me to the conclusion that money and glory are the only incentives that truly spur performance, either on the playing field or at the office, from which can be deduced that the only system for human endeavor that truly works is capitalism, because it’s the only system that takes into account human nature.
If that’s true, then athletic competition was never a spiritually innocent pursuit. The ancient Greek athletes sought glory as much as the athletes who will converge on London. They would have hoped for the Bob Costas treatment just as much as the Olympians competing this summer will.
Even if it weren’t inherently true, we’re probably past the point at which sports will ever again be innocent. We’re not about to tear up the multi-billion dollar television contracts or raze the cathedrals we call stadiums. Parents aren’t likely to stop over-scheduling their children or screaming from the sidelines at them, their coaches and the refs. Our children are not likely to stop dreaming of playing in the NBA or the NFL, or of coming to believe that the sports they play are vehicles of advancement and not just pursuits intrinsically worth pursuing for themselves.
Still, there is something sad about it all. Wrestling and gymnastics aren’t great sports simply because they can lead to Olympic glory. They’re great sports because the combination of strength, balance, agility and speed they demand produce moments of genuine beauty. In a better world, I wouldn’t worry about their decline at the Division 1 college level. I would retain faith in their ability to attract young athletes even if there are no scholarships to be earned. I would believe that their intrinsic value would remain self-evident.
But I don’t live in that world and so, if they can’t garner television contracts or sell tickets, gymnastics and wrestling will have to raise money some other way. And, if they can’t, they’ll die a slow death at the hands of the creative destruction that defines our amoral systems. The USOC is right to worry about their continued ability to field teams able to compete for the gold every four years.
Despite this, we will continue to watch the Olympic Games. Despite Bob Costas and the cheesy human interest stories, despite opening and closing ceremonies so gaudy they make Times Square look like a monument to understatement, despite more coverage than competition, we’ll watch. We’ll watch because, though we live in an age dominated by the amour propre, by Sports Center and talking heads and social media, in a world where it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the genuine from the artificially produced, we believe we are still able to sift through all the mud to find gold.
We need to believe this. Because despite the evidence to the contrary, despite our own rush to take 15-minute bows on Facebook, there’s that nagging belief at the backs of our minds—or maybe it’s just a need to believe—that something in this world can still be pure, that something in this world doesn’t yet come with a price tag attached, that someone somewhere pursues excellence for its own sake.
—Photo credit: familymwr/Flickr