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It’s time to evict big-time sports from American higher education

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

HARRISONBURG, Va. – James Madison University, my current employer, recently commissioned an “overall strategic plan” for its athletics program. Revealed to the public in an admirable gesture of institutional transparency, the plan claims that JMU is “well-positioned” for a transition to the highest level of college sports, the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Although administrators are open to the idea of moving on up, the James Madison faculty, myself included, is substantially less enthused. Why do the vast majority of us oppose the move?

First, we worry about the numbers. There is no question that Football Bowl programs are risky investments and that they’re correlated with disproportionately high levels of institutional athletics funding. There’s also widespread concern about endorsing a financial scheme dependent on unpaid labor for its solvency, labor that may one day be declared illegal. And yes, longtime professors who saw their salaries frozen for five years are viscerally upset by a plan that suggests hiking student fees to fund a major investment in our football program.

Yet the financial cost of college football is nothing compared with its cost to our integrity. Are some people such addicts that they will continue to rationalize the exploitation of workers on whose battered bodies their beloved entertainment industry is built?

So be it. But I will not stand by as the engineers and patrons of this system pervert my religion and desecrate its churches.

I see my job as both a career and a devotion. Max Weber, the founder of modern social science, referred to scholarship as “a vocation,” evoking the traditional sense of a divine calling to serve in the priesthood. The earliest universities descended from religious schools, and it was only in the 19th century that Harvard, America’s first university, changed its motto from “Truth for Christ and Church” to “Truth.”

That simple motto still represents the mission of higher education, the core of our academic faith. Professors puzzle over ancient languages, map the stars, and grade endless assignments not because “those who can’t do, teach,” but because we are devoted to truth and feel a duty to profess it. We think – we know – that our vocation has always been, and will continue to be, an essential element of any healthy society.

It is not my place to criticize the status of athletics in America. On that, our nation has already made a near unanimous decision. As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel puts it in his book “What Money Can’t Buy”: “From Yankee Stadium in New York to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our civil religion, public spaces that gather people from different walks of life in rituals of loss and hope, profanity and prayer.”

But these cathedrals should not be the crown jewels of college campuses, and athletes should not be our evangelists. It’s true that academia and sports complement each other – Plato himself was an excellent wrestler. Yet Plato would surely be appalled, as we should be, to hear that University of California-Berkeley pays its Nobel laureate in physics one-tenth the salary of its football coach, or that some institutional athletics subsidies can reach 1.5 times the total library budget. These figures represent and legitimize a profound disorder of values.

As I contemplate the recently renovated $62 million stadium on my own campus, it strikes me that a traditional religion once compromised its morals to pay for fancy cathedrals. Originally a minor aspect of Catholicism, indulgences took off when they were monetized effectively. Despite limits placed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, churches continued to bleed funds from the faithful in exchange for promises of salvation. The issue came to a head in 1517 when Pope Leo X sold indulgences to finance renovations of St. Peter’s Basilica. Scandalized, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and started the Protestant Reformation.

It is time for our own reformation. Students and parents: Choose schools based on the educational experiences they offer, not the ranking of their teams. Alumni: Donate because your school taught you something, not because it wins games. Faculty, administrators and presidents: Don’t let your fear of being martyred stop you from speaking out publicly against big-money college sports. If higher education in America wants to preserve its integrity, we have no choice but to demand together: Get your stadiums out of our churches.

• Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

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