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This past weekend, while I was procrastinating and watching videos on the Internet, I somehow happened to stumble upon several film clips depicting the apparently adrenaline-filled world of professional bowling. While this may not seem to be an incident of any great significance, it shattered my lifelong perception of bowling as a passive sport, as it suddenly became evident that many professional bowlers get quite emotionally invested in the matches in which they play, often to the point of erupting in tirades of trash-talking to other players and members of the audience.
I found this to be rather curious, since one might not generally think of bowling as an activity which justifies the over-inflation of one’s ego. Even at the level of a virtuoso, it seems like a strange thing to get so worked up about — I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the sport of bowling is irrelevant, right?
Of course, within seconds of having this thought, I realized that this sentiment could be extended to essentially every athletic sport; it just so happens that bowling is less popular than others, and so it seems more silly for a person to display a boastful attitude for their proficiency at it. In reality, there are a number of factors which contribute to the value which a society places on a specific sport. As an example, it is perhaps a mere coincidence (or if not this, then at least a lengthy and indeterminable sequence of determining causes) that soccer is less popular in America than basketball. This is something which may be observed both by the number of attendees at games, as well as the salaries which the top players of each sport command.
In addition to the phenomenon of regional popularity of diverse sports, the social function that they play has always been something which I have found strange. Sporting events in their modern form represent little more than contemporary tribalism. In comparing two teams, such as the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings, it becomes evident that these two organizations are almost identical except for the fact that they wear different colors and come from slightly different locations. In professional sports, the majority of players on a certain team are rarely even native to the city which sponsors them, yet somehow the majority of us continue to participate in the bizarre practice of supporting our team, because, you know, we are convinced that the group wearing the blue jerseys is superior to the one wearing orange.
Perhaps an even stranger phenomenon is the role which sports have in our nation’s institutions of higher education. Up to this point in my life, I have yet to find a person who can explain, to my satisfaction, why certain individuals who are high performers in specific athletic disciplines are often eligible to receive scholarship funds. The primary reason for the existence of colleges and universities has always been education, though what this means has changed periodically over the years. Still, I have yet to discover the college which awards degrees in tennis, basketball or football, so why do students get scholarship money to participate in those activities while in college? As with most things the answer is, of course, money.
Because college athletes do not receive salaries for their participation in sporting events, the primary emolument of which they partake often comes in the form of an athletic scholarship. For larger universities, the ability to turn a profit on a school’s team without directly paying the sporting participants has facilitated mass profits and infrastructural developments. (Out of the ten largest sporting stadiums in the world, six are stadiums used by athletic teams belonging to American universities.) As a university becomes larger, and as the student population increases, the number of alumni increases as well. The result is a larger pool of individuals funding the athletic operations of their alma mater by ticket sales, donations and the purchase of related merchandise. (The size of the student and alumni population helps to explain why both Berkeley and UCLA have football teams while UCSB does not.)
From a profit standpoint, the awarding of athletic scholarships makes sense, since it is merely an incentive for a talented individual to choose one institution over another. In this manner, the practice is reflective of the bid process for free-agents in professional sports. This is all well and good, but it has nothing to do with academia — and to claim that an individual should be granted preferential status to an educational institution because of their athletic ability is simply another way of saying that irrelevant criteria should come into play in college admissions. That a student who can excellently perform the socially irrelevant task of striking a little ball with a racquet — or fling a larger ball through a hoop — and, as a result, gain a college scholarship is, at its core, exceedingly odd.
This is not to say that athletic activities are completely devoid of value, and I am sure that many reading this will presume my opinion to stem from some sort of athletic deficiency on my own part — something which is, in fact, not the case. (Playing multiple sports growing up, my most recent athletic obsession began several years ago with my discovery of rugby, a love affair ultimately brought to an unfortunate end by a rather gruesome injury.) As a medium of entertainment, I myself have often found sporting events to be more intriguing than similar forms of entertainment, such as television. A live sporting event is simply less predictable than scripted forms of entertainment, and is therefore, for me, more interesting. However, an affinity for sporting events in general — especially college ones — should not necessarily translate into an unquestioning acceptance of the awarding of scholarships to gifted college athletes, or to the strange marriage between athletics and educational institutions.
Naturally, there are arguments which may be presented to validate the existence of athletic scholarships, such as the assertion that they may provide opportunities to students who are less well off financially. However, there are several problems with this claim. The first is that students from wealthier high schools will obviously be at an advantage in terms of available athletic resources, both in terms of training and infrastructure. Wealthier high schools may simply provide more sporting opportunities by having a larger variety of athletic teams competing in various disciplines. Another problem with the financial argument is that the awarding of athletic scholarships often has nothing to do with economic need, and may in fact benefit wealthier students who had easier access to high quality athletic training. Some of you may remember the public debate which emerged two years ago when P. Diddy’s son was offered a $54,000 football scholarship at UCLA. Diddy’s net worth is approximately $700 million.
If access of education to low income students is truly a concern, then perhaps the funds which colleges use to award athletic scholarships should be reallocated for the purpose of defraying the cost of tuition for poorer students. The colleges which award the best athletic scholarships are, of course, the ones hosting teams which turn large profits, so the financial strain should not be more than they can bear.
The point which I am trying to relate is not that college sporting events are without worth — indeed, they can be quite entertaining and they also serve the function of uniting alumni and students from disparate generations. Rather, what should be called into question is the practice of employing athletic scholarships as a means of essentially bribing talented individuals to attend a school, at which point they become an asset in the process of making money for the campus. (This is something which we might easily forget at a university such as UCSB, as we do not play host to the type of bloated pageantry which accompanies sporting events at larger universities.) Additionally, while athleticism has a rich history of being conjoined with institutions of higher learning, this should not necessarily mean that selected individuals should be rewarded for an ability irrelevant to academia.
Jonathan Rogers apologizes to anyone who’s been trying to get into contact with him within the past 48 hours. He’s been holed up watching bowling … the shit’s addictive.