Saturday, April 02, 2005

School Sports

CBS, groooming us for the 2005 Final Four, was just discussing NCAA rule changes with regard to college athletics, basketball the relevant focus. That calls forth some pk thoughts that run deep, so deep that there's always flow near the surface.

I n 1956 I joined the crew team. The coach was more interested in me as a coxswain for the heavyweights than as a light weight oarsman. If I rowed, I'd get nothing; if I agreed to be coxswain, I'd get access to the training table: steak while everybody else in the cafeteria got chipped beef. I'd wanted to row, coach wanted me holding the tiller. He was anxious, he was the boss, his bribe convinced me.
I try not to second guess myself in life, but if I wanted to start, that decision would make as good a starting place as any. I could have worked on upper body strength while honing balance, rhythm ... As is I got training table: at which I starved myself. I hovered around 132, and at race time I'd do situps in the furnace room until I was 122. The oarsmen saw me running on the track. The oarsmen would see me emerge from the furnace room, skinny as a chicken bone. The oarsmen knew I too was working hard, I wasn't just dead weight for them to carry. My practice was good for morale. But I should have rowed.
In winter the crew teams would practice in the indoor tanks, set well-below ground in the Columbia gym. My locker was situated by a railing that looked down on the basketball court, the court's ceiling skipping a floor upward. As I changed the basketball team would be working out. Chet Forte was the star. I saw him score more than forty a game on more than one occasion. Indeed, little Chet Forte, 5' 9" or so, was the leading scorer in the country that year: ahead of Wilt Chamberlin!
When practice was done and I'd change back to mufti, Chet would often still be on the court, practicing alone. I enjoyed watching Chet Forte practice alone, myself being the only audience I saw, presumably unseen by him, my locker being up in the rafters, more than I enjoyed any actual games. Chet would practice, and make, again and again, swish more often than not, the most amazing shots. He'd shoot "free throws" from half court. He'd shoot at whacky angles. For example, picture a school gym. There are the two baskets at either end of the court for games, but there were also two additional baskets per side: for half-court games during ordinary gym classes. Chet would stand under one side basket and shoot to the basket furthest away on the other side. I imagine that practice must accustom a player pretty thoroughly to the rectangle of basketball. Chet practiced long distance oblique angles too. I'll mention one additional whacky shot: Chet would stand at half court, measure the basket in front of him, and shoot backwards over his head to the basket a half-court behind him. Swish.
I was pleased that a guy at my school made national news on a regular basis. Claude Bentham was the football quarterback, a star himself; but I sure don't remember him ever being national news.
Then one day a roommate came in with the New York Times. Chet Forte was off the team, suspended. His average had fallen below the dean's guideline: and that was it. Until he performed better in class, he was in civvies. The Times writer went on about how this and that great ivy league player couldn't stop Forte: "it took a little man from the dean's office ..."
A national championship couldn't have made me more proud to be attending Columbia. Sure we had hypocrisy; but a minimum of it: less than many a person could imagine.
Ah, but a dozen years later I was bumping my head against NYU. A dozen years later I was getting fired in violation of my contract by the college which had just talked me into teaching there for an additional year. The reason given was cockamamie: the real reason can only be speculated on: but more than half the department was fired in one fell purge: the half that had made itself visible in protest to US behavior in Vietnam.
So: by that time I no longer believed in school at any level. I had never believed in public school. I had believed in Columbia: sort of. But by 1969, 1970 I no longer believed in NYU, Colby, or Columbia: or Oxford or Cambridge. I no longer believed in government. I no longer believed in the NY Times. (There again, I had never believed in the NY Times.)
What any society should have is a free marketplace: for anything to be marketed: including skill acquisition. Get rid of the administration. Get rid of degrees. Get rid of grades. Let any scholar who wishes to teach advertise his offerings in the free market. If no one buys him, tough. If people are too blind to hire Einstein, or Kitredge, or Bateson, that's tough on the stupid people: on the whole society, as well as tough on Einstein, Kitredge, and Bateson. But again: that's tough. It's not public business.

So CBS multi-billion dollar contract with the colleges returns millions and millions of dollars to the colleges: for general scholarships, student aid ... Wrong, bad, get rid of it. It's not public business.

If a college can attract tuition paying students – without degrees, without grades – and if that college has a basketball program, I don't care whether that college flunks its players or gives them all Rolls Royces. It's not my business. It's not public business. Let the college do whatever it wants. The college can teach Superman comics; basket weaving can be its prestige discipline. I don't care. It's no one's business but those paying tuition and those selling the college.

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