The old “liberal intelligentsia hates the football program” argument: a Boulder Intellectual responds to a prominent sportswriter

There it was again on the radio this morning: a sports pundit talking about the anti-sports environment that pervades America’s universities, and in particular the hyper-liberal University of Colorado.


In this case, the guy doing the talking is actually pretty credible. Terry Frei of the Denver Post was on Sandy Clough’s show (104.3 FM, The Fan) as he is every Saturday morning. As a rule, Clough’s show is perhaps the smartest three of hours of your sports talk day here in the 5280. (For perspective, understand that we have four full-time sports stations and at least one more that includes a good bit of sports in its daily mix, so we’re a fairly big dog market when it comes to sports radio.) Clough, maybe my favorite sports radio guy in America, and certainly in Denver, is relentlessly informed and unusually thoughtful for his profession, and Frei is in some respects Clough’s local newspaper analogue. So I always tune in when I’m out and about, as I was this morning.

Further, Frei has some particular insight into the question he was engaging: his father, Jerry, was head football coach at the University of Oregon from 1967-1971, so Terry has seen college football in a liberal university town up close and personal.

Some caveats before I dive in. Frei is not a run-of-the-mill sports talk doofus (although The Fan does employ its share of them). Instead, what we have here is a smart guy working from a perspective that perhaps keeps him from understanding, or at least articulating, the full nuance of what’s really at work. (Let me also make clear that Frei and Clough are perhaps the two most rational voices among those I’ll be talking about below, so I’m not necessarily lumping them in with the “others” I’ll be mentioning. I hope they’ll forgive me if I paint with too broad a brush – I’m trying very hard to avoid a straw man situation here; nothing I’m going to tell you I have heard said is anything but precisely that, and today’s radio show is part of the general tendency, even if it resides at the upper end of the quality curve.)

Onward. Since I’m almost an archetypal example of the kind of person the standard “Boulder liberal” critique is aimed at, this seems as good a time as any to step in with, as Paul Harvey might say, the rest of the story.

Frei is certainly right to note that the CU football program has had its detractors in Boulder for the past few years. Former Coach Bill McCartney had a good bit of success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but his stances on social, political and religious issues were a source of ongoing embarrassment for the community. If the “intelligentsia” in Boulder hated McCartney, we might consider his values in light of the community that employed him and conclude that their reaction was predictable, if not completely justified. Then came Slick Rick Neuheisel, who was at the helm for a bit of controversy, although it was determined that he wasn’t really at fault. He was followed by Gary Barnett, who found himself at the center of all kinds of trouble, some of it very public and very embarrassing for the school. It can be argued that these events were perhaps overblown (Frei himself makes that argument, and feels that he personally was culpable in feeding a frenzy that was unfair to Barnett), although Bleacher Report calls it the third worst scandal in college football history. Regardless, anyone familiar with the Katie Hnida case and the infamous press conference surrounding it must allow that, at a minimum, the coach’s appalling PR gaffe damaged the university in ways that were hard to overlook. (Barnett’s worst moment starts at the 2:45 mark.)

Dan Hawkins seems to have run a relatively clean, if utterly inept program, and most recently there was the controversy around Jon Embree’s firing after only two years. The last two tenures have been pretty much free of off-field drama, it should be noted, and while I hate losing, I hate having the university’s integrity tarnished a lot worse. If you want to say I’d rather lose fair than win dirty, I’m okay with that.

I will also not argue Frei’s contention that many in the CU community – and here, of course, we’re talking about all those liberal professors who, it is routinely implied by many of those who support the cause of Buff football, have way more power than is healthy in a tier 1 research university environment – have a serious burr under their saddle regarding the program. This is absolutely true.

Here’s where the problem arises. Frei, and others, often fail to give fair voice to the true nature of the complaint. It isn’t, as is too often suggested, that academics hate sports and all things associated with it. This is patently untrue. Some academics don’t care about sports in general and yes, some hate sports, period. I know some of these people. Used to date one, in fact.

But the same is true in every university. The same is true in corporate America. The same is true in towns that have no university whatsoever. I’ve never worked in a company where somebody didn’t hate sports. I’ve never lived in a city where people didn’t hate sports. One of my best friends, who has not an academic bone in his body (and very few liberal ones, either) despises sports and everything about them.

In Boulder, even if it were true that every single professor hated football, it wouldn’t matter. These folks didn’t even have enough power to prevent the hiring of a corporatist, anti-intellectualclimate disruption denier as president.

Let me pause to qualify myself here, because it bears on the discussion. I am a CU grad. I earned my doctorate there in 1999 and the faceless, nameless “liberal intelligentsia” are actual personal friends and acquaintances for me. I know them. I studied with them. I’ve been to their homes and argued with them (boy, howdy, did I argue with them) and had beers with them and collaborated with them and praised them and in some cases spoken about them in ways that were less than flattering.

And when it comes to this category of “Boulder Intellectuals who have problems with the football program,” make sure you have me on the list (even though I now live in Denver).

Except…except I don’t hate sports. I don’t hate football. At all. Been an athlete my whole life. Football, baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, wrestling, water polo, volleyball, track, cross-country – at some point or another in my life I have competed in all these sports, in some cases casually and poorly and in other cases doing not badly for myself. In my brightest moment, I started at right back for the Iowa State University club soccer team that beat Kansas State to win the Big 8 Tournament in 1988. (There was no NCAA soccer in the conference at that point, which meant that the club team was the only team and that grad students could play, which was awesome.)

I watch sports, too. I love the Broncos (now that Tebow is gone) and the Red Sox and the Avalanche and the Nuggets and Wake Forest (even though our hoops team sucks right now). My biggest passion these days is West London’s Chelsea FC. I’m on the board of directors, even, for our local Rocky Mountain Blues Chelsea Supporters Club and I was driving around this morning to hear Clough and Frei because I was on my way back from the British Bulldog, where we gather to watch Chelsea matches. Today’s 8am start was a welcome one – last weekend the kick was at 5:30am MST.

What else? Oh, I listen to lots of sports talk radio. When I’m in the truck, button #1 is set to 104.3FM. Buttons #2-3 are set to the other FM sports outlets and my first AM button is a sports station, too. Two or three other AM buttons are set to stations that carry the games of teams I follow. And I watch SportsCenter, of course.

Oh yeah – and I root for my Colorado Buffaloes football team (although in recent years that has been a dour way to spend an afternoon). And Ralphie? I freakin’ LOVE Ralphie! Best. Mascot. In. College. Sports. Period.

In other words, not a hater.

While I may be a little more overboard about things like Chelsea than most Boulder Intellectuals, the truth is that most of the folks I know up there don’t hate sports at all. Many, like me, have been athletes themselves. Many watch games. Root for the team. Want CU to do well because they understand that, as the system is currently set up, on-field success actually helps things like academic recruiting.

The CU community, then, doesn’t have a problem with athletics. It has a problem with the ways in which big money athletics are allowed to corrupt institutions of higher learning. This is a critical distinction. I have never once heard a professor or a doctoral student or anyone else you might lump in with the Boulder Intellectual community complaining about intramurals or club sports or, for that matter, non-revenue sports. Heck, when I was a professor at a small liberal arts school in the Northeast (with a full D1 athletics program), the women’s hoops team was one of the jewels of the university. Their collective GPA was better than the student population at large, they worked hard and if there were ever any disciplinary problems I never heard about it. Student-athletes in non-revenue sports are often absolute models of what a university student should be, and there is zero opposition to their presence in the university community in Boulder (or any other university of which I am aware).

Unfortunately, big money athletics programs – here we’re talking primarily about football, and in some cases basketball – are built around agendas and principles (if you can use that term) that not only have nothing to do with a university, they are directly antithetical to the goals and values of higher education. If you are a prospective engineering major, you’re admitted to school because of your academic credentials and potential. If you’re a highly recruited running back, you may be admitted despite your academic credentials and potential. If you are not a promising athlete, a record of run-ins with the law and/or academic dishonesty will, at a minimum, significantly damage your chances of admission. If you are an athlete, those same transgressions will require the athletic director and the admissions department to huddle so they can explore ways of working around the system.

No, not all non-athletes turn out to be law abiding, high achieving citizens who make the university proud. Only a moron would make that argument. And by no means are all, or even a majority, of scholarship athletes irredeemable thugs who are only on campus because they dream of playing in the bigs. Again, you’d have to be utterly blind to the facts to think such a thing.

But the big money demands of revenue football at schools like Colorado mean that if you hope to succeed, you must craft a second-tier admissions system that accepts students who aren’t qualified, de facto, to be in the same classroom as the general student population. It has to overlook behavioral tendencies that you’d never condone in a non-athlete. And once they’re in comes the really tricky part: keeping them eligible. Allowing them to take light loads and avoid rigorous classes. Funneling them into easy majors (assuming they’re going to be around long enough to declare a major). University-paid tutoring. Personal calls to professors whose classes are giving players a hard time. And so on.

If you find yourself mentally arguing with that last paragraph, stop reading and move on now. You’re either hopelessly uninformed, mired in a tragic case of denial or you’re simply not interested in the facts. Nothing said so far is even remotely controversial. If you want your team to win and you hate anything that gets in the way of that, fine. You’re a fan of professional sports and you think that’s what colleges are for.

“Intellectuals” – and really, you don’t have to be packing a PhD to get this – believe that universities are about teaching and learning, not developing talent for major league sports. They’re about the arts and sciences. They’re about engineering and law. They’re about medicine and conducting the basic research that uncovers the hidden mysteries of the universe, moving humanity forward. They’re about music and literature and theater, about learning to think and reason and create. And yes, they’re about playing, about the unbridled joy of living in an environment where dreaming is okay and where figuring out how to make those dreams into reality is encouraged.

Maybe I’m being idealistic, but then, that’s another thing that the university is about: ideals.

When any of these pursuits, let alone all of them, are eclipsed by the behavior of those who were not qualified for admission in the first place, the system is out of balance. When a coach makes more than the Sociology department, the system is irredeemably corrupt. Yes, I get market economics, and I understand that you’re worth precisely what someone wil pay you. I fully grasp that a particular coach’s abilities drive a certain amount of revenue, and that he (we’re talking football, so it’s a he) is entitled to participate in the fruits of his labor. My argument isn’t with the coach for getting what he can or the players for trying to find their way to a more secure life Considering the poverty many come from, I understand their motivation completely. No, my argument is with the system.

Which, by the way, is unique. I am unaware of any other culture in the world where the minor league sports apparatus has been routed through higher education. In Europe, if you’re a 14 year-old kid with a promising athletic career, you can choose to pursue that sport. Instead of enrolling in an academically purposed institution and pretending to go to class and getting another student to write your papers and hoping you don’t get caught, you sign on with a sporting academy. Talented footballer in England? Great – the academy at Chelsea might be interested (although they’re not one of the best). If you’re truly outstanding, maybe they’ll have you at Ajax or Sporting or West Ham or even Barcelona, the gold standard of world football programs. There you’ll attend classes, but there’s no pretext – you’re there because you’re a footballer, not a guy pretending to be a Speech major because it’s easy and won’t get in the way of sports.

No, of course the US isn’t going to abandon college sports and adopt the European model, no matter how much more sense it makes. That ship sailed in the 19th century and it isn’t coming back. I’m well acquainted with the realities of the nation I live in and since I don’t have a magic wand, I deal with it.

The point is about Terry Frei and the legions of sports writers and talkers out there (most of whom aren’t nearly as bright as he is). I’m going to send this to Terry as soon as I’m finished, and while I don’t expect him to agree with all I have to say, I imagine he’ll understand my argument.

He’ll get that what bothers us Boulder Intellectuals, and thinking folks all over the country, isn’t that we hate sports or that we hate football per se. It’s that we love the glory of the American university, which is truly one of the grandest innovations in human history. We revere its power to teach and to transform, not just individuals, but communities and entire societies. How many times have the minds of American academics changed the world for the better? Go get a calculator, because you’ll never count that high without one.

We despair when that noblest of missions is undercut by the basest of agendas, when its integrity and credibility are auctioned off to the highest bidders, no matter how little they care for learning and the world-shaking power it represents.

At some level, Terry Frei probably already understands every word I have written. My hope, then, is that the next time the subject comes up, whether it’s in a column or on Sandy’s show or in a casual conversation among friends, that he frames the discomforts of the Boulder Intelligentsia with more nuance than we’re used to, that he treats our perspective with respect and that when he tells you what we think, he does so in a way that causes his loyal readers to pause and say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” That would be journalism in its finest form.

Terry, if you have read this far, I appreciate you listening.

8 replies »

  1. This nonsense is basically another way of stroking your ego and keeping track of how important you are. You are definitely all about that. You don’t hate the sport of football – no sir! You just can’t stand the focus, money and glory stolen by the university football program. And those unwashed football players! Listen, you and those like you who are obsessed with how educated and enlightened you are need a cold shower. Wash some of that pride and arrogance off.

    • Matthew: I can’t tell for sure, though, whether you didn’t read my post or you simply didn’t understand it. In any case, thanks for replying. It’s nice to have the point I’m making illustrated so nicely.

  2. Brilliant! Your intellect has ruined me! I would never have expected such an inspired retort! Actually, based on your response, I would submit that you are not actually making the point you intended, but rather the opposite. Let me know if I have it straight: #1> You like sports, even football (paragraphs 1-7, 14-19). #2> You don’t argue that liberal professors have a serious burr under their saddle regarding the program. This is absolutely true (paragraph 8). #3> Boulder Intellectuals, which you are one of, hate sports about as much as the rest of the population (9-13). #4> Athletics are fine, but the whole major college football system is not (20-27). #5> Can’t we just be like Europe (28-29)? #6> Boulder Intellectuals and “thinking folk” don’t like major college football because it detracts from the glory of the American university (30-31). Ok now doctor, check my work. Have summarized your thoughts accurately? If so, then I must conclude that the “liberal intelligentsia” hates the football program – and this strikes me as completely prideful and arrogant.

  3. Matthew, I’m with Sam. I don’t think you understood what he wrote. In fact, many of the points you “summarize” are just your own straw man arguments, taking nuanced, subtle points and pretending Sam made a polarized, binary points. He didn’t. You did.

    I understand completely why large, US universities need major-league football and basketball programs: marketing. Without division one programs, the University of Colorado would be just one more mega-school admitting nearly everyone who applies — indistinguishable from the University of North Dakota, the University of Maine, and the University of Delaware in the eyes of most undergraduate applicants. With major sports programs, the University of Colorado is a “player,” though, on the national scene, with name recognition that attracts students who want to attend colleges with major league sports. These don’t tend to be the best students. Those tend to apply to schools with high-level academic reputations that may or may not have big-time football and/or basketball. But the University of Colorado’s brand doesn’t attract all that many top students. It needs a huge number of applications from relatively average students, because it already admits about 87% of applicants. If applications drop, CU won’t be able to fill its freshman classes.

    So, big-time football and basketball are here to stay for most of those universities already engaged in one or both of them. There are a few universities that could decide to kill their programs with little effect on their businesses (Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Duke, Rice, and a few others), but they’re the exceptions.

    I think those who hate big-time college sports (and I am not one of them, since I am a rabid fan of my own alma mater) do so because of the hypocrisy. Some athletes are not students in any real sense of the word, but the universities still say they are. Some get away with crimes, and even violent crimes, simply because they play big-time sports. That seems wrong to many, self included. Some take up slots that could have gone to more-deserving students, who actually might learn something from their classes instead of having others do their work for them so that they learn little or nothing. And even if they want very much to learn and compete in the classroom, participating in big-time college sports is very nearly a full-time, year-round job these days. Many don’t get the opportunity to get as much out of the classroom as they could if they weren’t athletes.

    I think there’s a solution. Universities should offer degrees in coaching whatever big-time sport an athlete plays. Many of the football and basketball players could take those classes and nothing else, and when they graduate, they would be qualified only to coach their sports. There would be no pretense that they actually learned anything with their communications, anthropology, or sociology degrees (note: These degrees are very worthwhile for those who work hard at them, but they can be easy to pass for those who don’t). Athletes who want to become engineers, physicians, physicists, or what have you can still take those courses, of course, but there would be no pretense about those who simply aren’t qualified for a college classroom — outside of coaching, vocational training — at any level.

  4. Stuart and Samuel, I completely agree with you both. I have long held these same sentiments and—to no avail—attempted to inject this perspective into discussions on the subject. The difficulty is that whereas we are the intellectuals and simply propose this based on our observations and thorough analysis of the effects of this system without a dog in the fight, the people we debate with have every reason to oppose our argument and few to find interest in it. Many of them are not interested in the role of the university in intellectual and cultural growth—it is simply a hoop to jump through to be competitive in the job market, a business venture, or an athletic mill. Many of them continue to see it as the “high and mighty intellectual snobs trying to shut down sports because they think they are better than us.” Some probably feel intimidated to some extent. Many of these people have benefitted from the system as it stands either directly or indirectly.

    I think the problem we are facing arises from conflicting viewpoints as to the role of the college. In my experience, every person I’ve argued this with bases his argument on a market-based perspective; the college’s priority should be whatever the public wants it to be. Although I am all for democratic involvement in a school’s mission, especially in public universities, it should not corrupt the ultimate core function of the university: to educate. With budget cuts looming nationwide, the first things to go after should be programs not in accordance with that function. Might I also add that a market analysis is not appropriate in the case of public institutions since these are non-profit, state-controlled bodies that should not be concerned with bringing in any more revenue than is necessary to break even.

    The problem is not athletics. The problem is the monster athletics has become that can no longer coincide with the academic priorities of a college. We can no longer convince ourselves that the most dedicated athletes are still able to—or even have interest in—gaining the most out of their courses. Why are we pretending that an education is what they are there for? Why should we waste these kids’ time and their professors’ time all to keep up this charade of the student-athlete?

    • Marcus, I agree completely that athletics aren’t the issue. I have always been an athlete myself and played for the soccer club at Iowa State back before they had an NCAA program. We weren’t a problem academically. There was a lot of serious intellectual horsepower on that team. I’ve also been a college prof and have taught kids in non-revenue sports. Guess what – they weren’t a problem, either. Hell, one place I taught the women’s hoops team was the biggest collection of academic achievers in the entire school. And so on. I’m a huge fan of the university promoting physical excellence as well as mental. For me, that means strong support for clubs, significant investment in intramurals, and honestly a D-III approach doesn’t bug me in the least.

      It’s the big money, big corruption minor league feeder system that’s the source of all the problems. There’s no chance that I would ever be named president of a major university, which is a good thing, because if it happened one of my first tasks would be the dismantling of the D-1 football and basketball programs.

      I’d be fired by 2pm, I figure…. 🙂