Yesterday’s post was heartfelt, but it may have struck some readers as too idealistic. The full truth–at least, as fully as I can state it–is that I have mixed feelings about higher education these days. I believe all of the things I wrote yesterday, but the situation at Baylor (just one of many similar cases that could be cited) strikes fairly close to home. My paternal grandfather went to Baylor’s seminary, and I grew up listening to stories about his experiences there, whether I wanted to or not.
Over the years, I never cared whether Baylor’s football team won or lost. Sports were never what the school was about. It was about being a place where men and women could get a good education of distinction in many fields, particularly medicine. The distinctiveness of Baylor’s education, its Southern Baptist heritage, may be a matter of importance to some, and not so important to others, but for a long, long, time, if a student went there, she knew what kind of education she was going to get. It was also true, however (if my experience at Houston Baptist University was any guide), that religion per se was kept out of the classroom and only brought out in chapel on Wednesday and assembly on Fridays. At HBU, the professors struck strictly to business, with one exception: Dr. Wofford’s prayer before those tough tests in New Testament class, “Lord, help us call to mind the things we need to remember.” Very practical, that man, and a highly appropriate prayer, if I may say so. The atmosphere was most likely the same at Baylor in those days, as I judged during my two visits to that campus during my undergrad years.
Somewhere toward the end of Gilbert Highet’s book, The Art of Teaching, he has a long passage on how teachers may inculcate school spirit within the hearts of their students. That idea sounds terribly old-fashioned to think about, or even put into words, but it is a vital concept if schools are to survive. If we come to love such a place, and the kind of education it stands for, we want to give our money to it in order to sustain it. But can schools do things, or countenance things being done, that are so terrible those acts make us fall out of love with a university?
I believe the answer to that question is yes. The criminality among members of the football team has become so pervasive, and the culpability of those who were given charge over them so severe, that Baylor has forfeited the right to ask for the support of its alumni. Why did things get so bad? I tweeted the following back on May 26th: “Teams desperate to win will recruit and protect players who believe their talent exempts them from behaving decently. It doesn’t.” Baylor was desperate to win when it hired Art Briles. And Briles, for his part, deluded himself into thinking that he was “helping” those players who thought themselves exempt from decent behavior. Briles isn’t the only coach who’s ever thought that way, either.
Back in 1980, I sat in the dining hall of my dormitory and listened to one of the linemen on Texas Tech’s football team talk about what a great guy head coach Steve Sloan was because Sloan was “a man of his word.” “If Sloan promised a guy a car next week,” the lineman said, “that car would be there.” I thought, however, and said so to the lineman, “What good is a man’s word if it promises someone something illegal?” He had no answer to my question, preferring instead to highlight the limited morality of the man who does what he says he’ll do over the much tougher task of a man staying within the law. It was illegal to provide players with cars back then, and it still is. The argument that players have nothing and everybody else around them has everything is as specious now as it was thirty-five years ago. I am not naive about this. I am as aware as anyone that while the morally-upright John Wooden was coaching UCLA to ten consecutive NCAA basketball championships in the 1960s and 70s, a UCLA booster named Sam Gilbert was providing players whatever they needed. Those acts were illegal, too, and they offered the players more material comforts than many of their fellow students had.
It’s also specious to argue that football players “built the university.” They didn’t. At best, it may be said that they built the stadiums they play in, or the dorms they live in, or the complexes within which they practice. But the libraries, the classrooms, the labs, the student unions–those were built by the tuition and financial contributions of thousands upon thousands of other students who have sweated just as much as any football player has to make something of themselves. It is they who spread their talents out into every field who do as much to foster “school spirit” as any athlete; and it is they who are often uppermost in my thoughts when I remember college and what the institution is meant to do.