William Dowling, a Professor of English at Rutgers University, has been described by the New York Times as “an idealistic absolutist, an intellectual convinced that the thunder of big-time athletics was crumbling the ivory tower of academe.” Such “absolutism” is evidenced in an Inside Higher Ed interview in which Dowling claims that “the university is still securely in the hands of the same culture that watches American Idol and reads People magazine.” I disagree with Dowling’s “us versus them” attitude and blanket dismissal of consumers of popular culture. Nevertheless, I have been pondering the PSU scandal and the riots following the firing of Joe Paterno and think that Dowling’s biting critique of Div IA sports in his Confessions of a Spoilsport, a book published in 2007 by (ironically enough) Penn State University Press, is unfortunately relevant once again.
Dowling’s introduction, which is available as a free preview by PSU Press, tells a narrative of the demise of “democratic education” “at the hands of ‘professionalized’ college athletics.” Dowling recounts the scandal involving Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss, who attempted to frame player Patrick Dennehy as a drug dealer after Dennehy was shot and murdered by fellow player Carlton Dotson, in order to expose “the separate sphere of reality inhabited by everyone involved in Div IA athletics—players, coaches, academic tutors, Athletics Department personnel, sports-friendly trustees and administrators.” Dowling also discusses Ohio State football player Maurice Clarett, who maintained eligibility through “bogus grades and credit for nonexistent courses,” and star point guard Tony Cole, who took courses at the University of Georgia such as “Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball” taught by the coach’s son. Cole received an “A” for the class despite never attending classes or taking the final exam, which had such multiple questions as this one:
3. How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?
The logic of the PSU riots is nicely accounted for in the following passage from Dowling’s book:
When the athletes recognize that they are virtual demigods on campus, real students come to regard themselves as marginally important to the university, less real in the life of the school. When every institutional resource is dedicated—and known to be dedicated—to the support and celebration of specialized physical skills, intellectual talent and the pursuit of learning come to be disregarded and displaced, even, at many schools, despised. In the world of Div IA institutions, the Maurice Claretts and Tony Coles are real. The student who has come to college hoping to learn about Greek philosophy or Renaissance poetry or molecular biology walks the campus as a ghost.
This is the significance of that curious phenomenon, the undergraduate sports riot. The masses of Ohio State students who broke store windows and overturned automobiles in downtown Columbus after their football team beat Michigan, for instance, or the University of Connecticut students who set fires and passed out drunk in public after a basketball victory, were responding to the hallucinatory reality projected by Div IA sports. Dazzled by the celebrity and media power of their teams, students at OSU and UConn and other schools were doing their best to lay claim through postgame rioting and vandalism to the sphere of moral and legal invulnerability already granted to the athletes on their campuses. They were enacting the belief that professionalized sports are the only thing that matters, in just the terms already enunciated by a university whenever new stadiums are funded while library acquisitions are cut, or the coaching staff is enlarged while the honors program is curtailed.
Moreover, Dowling’s indictment of Div IA sports as “a magic sphere” of “powerful men” who “could bestow a cloak of invulnerability” sounds all too familar in light of the seeming complicity of the PSU football machine regarding the sexual assaults allegedly committed by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The PSU scandal demonstrates, once again, that we need to rethink the role of Div IA athletics in higher education.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.