Some people say the National Labor Relations Board's decision to let the Northwestern football team organize a union will end college sports as we know it. I hope they're right. Many have rightly pointed out the ways in which universities exploit their athletes, making billions of dollars on the backs of young people who have few options and fewer rights. An even more fundamental problem, however, is the relative value our country places on athletic prowess vs. the intellectual and technical skills that colleges are supposed to have as their primary mission. Many of the best learning institutions in our country have let a secondary value, athletics, overtake what should be their primary mission, training students intellectually to succeed in an incredibly complex and competitive world, for which most students, including both those on the field, and those in the stands, will be woefully unprepared. Sports and athletics can be a source of joy and enrichment for many people, including those who are not particularly athletically talented. But most individuals, as well as our country as a whole, would be significantly better off if they spent less time playing and watching sports, and more time reading books or learning to code.
While we take it for granted that colleges and sports go together naturally, in most of the rest of the world, there is no connection between universities and sports--universities are to teach people and prepare them for careers. People who want to do sports can join clubs or try out for professional teams. The advantage of this separation between sports and academics is that it's less likely that people will get confused about the true purpose of a college, and colleges can maintain a sense of intellectual integrity that our own universities are clearly lacking.
Many have pointed out, on these boards and in other places, the great opportunities that athletics give people who might not otherwise go to college by means of scholarships and recruiting. I would argue that the admission of students to colleges for primarily athletic reasons is a deal with the devil. Wouldn't colleges be sending a better message, one that might inspire students to work harder in their classes, by saying, "You can't get into college just because you can run fast. The way you get into college is through hours of practice, not at throwing a ball, but at solving algebra problems and writing essays"? How many thousands of hours do our young people spend in the hopes of getting athletic scholarships? And what percentage of those people would be better off forgetting about that elusive lottery ticket that is athletic stardom and focusing their efforts at improving their ability to handle the tough intellectual work that is crucial to well-functioning democracy and a thriving economy? 90%, at a minimum.
Truthfully, playing sports, at least career-wise, is a dead-end for most people. And the amount of emotional energy we focus on sports, I would argue, is a factor in the ignorance and intellectual disengagement that runs rampant in our country. Marx thought that religion is the opiate of the masses, but sports have become a religion for many people in our country, and to similar effect.
So, I hope the Northwestern decision does end college sports as we know it. I hope allowing athletes to organize makes college sports unprofitable, so that colleges decide whether to include sports based not upon how much money it brings in, but upon whether the sport is good for students' overall educational goals.
I imagine a future in which a lot of students play sports a few hours a week for fun, and a few play against teams from other schools, also mainly for fun. People who are potential professional athletes can join minor-league teams that pay them and give them medical insurance, and when the majority of them realize that they're not good enough to play professionally, they'll go back to college and dedicate all of their energies to curing cancer or developing more efficient solar power or writing novels and make computer programs that inspire others, and maybe pick up a ball and throw it around with their friends to blow off steam in between Calculus III and Microbiology.