Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

FOOTBALL AND SEX AT COLORADO: THE REAL SCANDAL

Here I am in Boulder, Colorado, the eye of the storm. We are shocked. Shocked. High school football stars were offered sex, to induce them to play for our universityís football team? Athletic department staff knew, or heard, about it and didnít stop it? Is that possible?

I would ask: Is it possible that this goes on only at Colorado, and not at all the major football schools across the country? Maybe Iím naïve. But I assume that this is common practice everywhere. The people who think there is something uniquely bad about Colorado are naive. My university just had the bad luck to get caught.

Some say it was good luck. There is a huge demand here to bring the secret out of the closet and reform the system, so that these abuses canít happen again.

Itís one thing to demand change and another to achieve it. The system is enormous. The football players, the coaches, and even the university administrators are merely small cogs. Like every major football school, CU has a big network of "boosters." University officials and coaches donít have to arrange or condone special pleasures for recruits. Itís all so well organized from outside the University, it just runs by itself, like a well-oiled machine.

Outside the university. Thatís where the problem is, because thatís where the money is. The Athletic Department raises enormous sums for its budget, which is separate from the rest of the universityís. Here in Boulder, they got private millions to enlarge the football stadium and deck it out with sky boxes. Every game day, those boxes are filled with corporate executives who stay warm and drink the game away at exorbitant rents Ė as long as the team is winning.

Of course, university administrators are happy to have a winning team, because that means wealthy fat cats will give more, not just to the football program but to the university as a whole.

University administrators reap another windfall from a winning team. Every year, they sell licenses to Nike, Reebok, and dozens of other firms to make clothing with the universityís logo. The more the team wins, the more manufacturers pay for those licenses. A team with national ranking can bring in extra millions for the campus.

Several years ago, Colorado students protested because so much CU clothing is made in sweatshops around the world. They demanded that the university license only companies providing decent wages and conditions for their workers. University administrators managed to water down the licensing code so that it became practically meaningless. They werenít going to risk losing those lucrative contracts.

There is another source of money they worry about. Look up at those sky boxes during any football game, and alongside the executives who pay big bucks you will see guests who donít pay at all. Some of them are state legislators and officials, who control the state universityís purse strings. If "the team" is winning, they are more likely to support the university generously, too.

True story: A scientist from our campus recently won a Nobel Prize. That got him invited to the White House. Guess the first thing George W. said to him. Right: "How about that CU football team." The scientist confessed that he (like so many of us on the faculty) doesnít know anything about the football team. But thatís the only part of the university most politicians are likely to know or care about.

I donít blame the politicians. Itís a democracy. Their job is to represent the values of their constituents. The people may not know, or care, if a school has the best physicists or philosophers. But they know and care if it has the best football team. Most politicians measure a university by its sports teams, because thatís how most Americans measure a university. Thatís where you have to look to begin to see the system that needs to be reformed. Itís the system of values that pervades our society, where athletic success matters more than education.

What else should we expect from a nation that has shifted so far to the right? Conservatives see life as an endless series of contests. At every moment there is a winner and a loser, a right and a wrong. No gray areas or compromises allowed. Cooperation is great Ė but only with your teammates, as you identify, search out, and destroy the enemy.

The urge to compete and win is at the core of human nature, conservatives say. Itís all about looking out for Number One, and being Number One. Losers need not apply. They love football because it is the perfect symbol of their view of life. All the world is a huge football field. In conservative country like ours, it makes sense to judge a university by the success of its football team.

No one understands this grim reality better than a high school football star. He knows that he gets fame, adulation, and all the free perqs because he can run faster or hit harder, while the kids who can think faster or politically organize harder are largely ignored.

He knows that our whole society is governed by the proverbial saying of a famous football coach: "Winning isnít everything. Itís the only thing." He knows that if his team starts losing, or heís in an accident and loses his athletic prowess, society will quickly toss him on the garbage heap. He knows that the university recruits him fiercely, maybe even with some free sex, because it wants to use him as a pawn in the race for scarce publicity and dollars. And he knows that those dollars are scarce because society would rather reward its athletes and entertainers than its educators.

Now he knows, too, that nothing sells the news like sex. Why this insatiable thirst to hear more and more about the scandal at CU-Boulder? It canít be just the demand of a virtuous nation to know the truth. The nation has been ignoring all sorts of moral outrages for years. Itís that puritanical streak in us, the repressed desire that canít help looking, and looking, and looking again at the misdeeds of a few Ė as long as there is sex among beautiful young people in the picture. The unfortunate women who have already been victimized by the system once, when they were attacked by athletes, are now victimized again by millions of ogling eyes and ears that canít ever seem to get enough.

Growing up in this system, is it surprising that some young men, filled with alcohol, lose their sense of moral values? Is it surprising that some of them, trained for nothing else, will grow up to be coaches and athletic officials who turn a blind eye when the next generation does what they once did? The pressures on those coaches and officials to get the best players, so they can win the most games, is unbelievable. The surprise is that so few give in, and so many maintain appropriate behavior, despite all the temptations.

This is not at all to exonerate those who do wrong. They should be called to account for their individual decisions. It is only to say that those decisions are not made in a vacuum. Those decisions are not the disease. They are merely symptoms. Of course we address symptoms. We stop the bleeding first. But if thatís all we do, the symptom is bound to return, again and again.

The millions who watch only football and sex may get some lurid fun. But they will never see the real scandal, the one that is all around them.


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