College Sports: A Revolution in the Making?

I have already blogged once about college sports, but I just had to comment on this groundbreaking and thought-provoking article, “The Shame of College Sports”, by civil rights historian Taylor Branch. Many of my students follow college sports already (even though Boston is notorious for its apathy toward college athletics and its preference for professional sports),  but they probably have not yet experienced the ups and downs of following your college’s team run up and down the field/court/curling ice. As a Davidson alumnus, one of the main ways for me to connect with my alma mater is the college’s tradition-rich men’s basketball team.  I grew up watching Georgia-Florida football games with my Dad in Jacksonville, my hometown. (And it’s happening this weekend, folks! Go Dawgs!) I am a great fan of collegiate athletics, so Branch’s article hit home with me not just because of its historical bent. Before you take on this hefty article, I suggest that you check out the video below, which features Branch and most of his key arguments.

On a basic level the information in Branch’s article is nothing new: he notes that the NCAA and its paternalistic regulations are hopelessly out of touch with the realities faced by student-athletes. For decades now critics of the NCAA have denounced it even more loudly and vehemently than Branch has here as hypocritical, legalistic, and unapologetic in its support for big institutions and their bank accounts. What makes this article different from those standard critiques, however, is its thorough treatment of the shocking early history of the NCAA. I had no idea that this governing body had usurped power from universities so easily and so seemingly irreversibly. Branch also does a great job of explaining how strange, ironic, and singularly American the NCAA’s oversight has been. No other country  in the world cares about college sports like we do, and, while you could say the same thing about how Americans think about the free market, for some reason we don’t allow a free market to exist for college sports. This is shameful. What is shameful as well is that the NCAA does all of this in the name of the mythological creature known as the “Student Athlete” (academicus athletica, if you will). This myth is convenient for the NCAA, because it allows them to cash in on the obscene amount of money these young men and women make for their colleges and, as yet, not at all for themselves.


Branch is brilliant in describing the injustice of this arrangement, likening it to, of all things, European colonialism. The “we know best” attitude of the NCAA certainly echoes how Western cultures justified their less than honorable actions abroad. It is as if, like in the famous imperialist soap advertisement shown above, the NCAA excuses its exploitation of thousands of athletes because it is virtue to be an impoverished and “clean” amateur. It is easy for us to accept this myth as a virtue, especially given the hedonism and selfishness of professional sports leagues in the West. Yet, I agree with Branch that it is a crime to deny American citizens the right to keep the fruits of their labors. Another aspect of Branch’s argument which I enjoyed is his admission that he is reluctant to advocate paying NCAA athletes. I appreciate his honesty, and I share his discomfort with this change. In the end, though, there is really no better way. With billions of dollars flowing through collegiate sports, why shouldn’t the players share in that windfall? One last strength of Branch’s article that I would like to underscore here is his clever redirection away from athletes’ countless violations of  NCAA rules. By focusing on the system rather than just the ways the system has been defied (by the likes of Miami, Ohio State, Connecticut, and so many others), his article has the potential of causing significant change. If we are to end this unjust colonialist approach to collegiate athletics, who will be our Sons of Liberty?


In Defense of American “Ignorance”

Allow me to be upfront about my bias: I adore contemporary American fiction. To me, it doesn’t get much better than a John Updike short story or a Cormac McCarthy novel. Add some too-sweet tea and roasted pecans and you have yourself a perfect afternoon. I consider myself relatively well-read (despite my ongoing shame at not ever having read the Koran), and I find the best of American fiction to be beautiful, philosophical, and deeply relevant. Yet, apparently my literary patriotism has not swayed the Nobel Prize in Literature committee, who has not awarded a prize to an American since 1993, when Toni Morrison claimed her 10,000,000 kroner (see her wonderful acceptance speech below). As this article from The New York Times reports, this year’s prize went to a Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Though I know very little about Mr Transtromer (other than his last name’s comical semblance to certain robots in disguise), I am nonetheless disappointed that the many worthy American authors have been bypassed yet again.

The debate about American writing and the Nobel Prize’s disdain for it stretches back to at least 2008, when Horace Engdahl famously alleged that the United States is too “insular” and that Americans’ “ignorance is restraining.” At the time Engdahl led the prize jury that chose each year’s winner, so these were fightin’ words indeed. This context makes Transtromer’s victory that much more difficult to bear, as he represents the committee’s unreconstructed and unapologetic parochialism. To award the prize to yet another Scandinavian is a baffling decision, even if, as today’s article notes, Transtromer “is to Sweden as Robert Frost was to America.” (Funny coincidence, actually, that this analogy points to a poet from the United States–what happened to our insularity?!?) Reading this article, I am tempted to pick up Transtromer’s poetry (especially because he is a poet who is essentially speechless after a stroke in 1990), but I may still stay away on principle in order to retain my blissful American ignorance. Hell, I’ll just watch some professional wrestling and eat some greasy spaghetti instead.

American Culture, according to most Europeans

This article, written by Julie Bosman, generally stays above the fray when it comes to the controversy on which many American readers might immediately focus. The author does make note of it when she writes that the committee has been criticized for being too “Eurocentric” and that, “Europeans have won an overwhelming number of the literature prizes in the last decade.” European journalists would not have emphasized this trend to the same degree, in my opinion. Also, she lists a number of American writers who deserved the prize, including Philip Roth and Bob Dylan (yes, that Bob Dylan). Though I might have added Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates to this list, I was satisfied that she acknowledged several Americans who might have walked away with the prize if the committee did not hold its nose up at the freedom-lovers across the pond. In my view Bosman overlooks the political angle to the committee’s annual snubbing of American writers; since Bush’s presidency many European elites have concluded that American culture is drowned out by cowboy yee-haws and frat boy hell-yeahs. To be honest, I would have been far less disappointed if an African author had won this year (Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya and Tahar Ben Jelloun from Morocco are more than deserving), but a triumph for yet another European rubbed salt in the wound a bit. Well, there’s always next year.

Angry Moms Go to Washington

As sure as the sun rises in the east and the New York Mets will miss the playoffs, Americans love their moms. Every Mother’s Day restaurants are filled to the brim with Moms busy brunching and catching up. A few years ago a good friend and I visited a famous restaurant in Cambridge without realizing that it was Mother’s Day. Needless to say, the swarms of maternal-looking people (like the SNL commercial for Mom Jeans) reminded us to call our own beloved mothers before we lost track of time. Everyone knows also that Americans love angry people. What’s American Idol without Simon Cowell’s disgust, for instance? You could even argue that angry moms hold a special place in Americans’ hearts. From Cinderella to Roseanne  Americans tune in for that feminine fury. Yet, strangely, and as this article from observes, Americans begin to tune out angry moms in politics. This phenomenon interests me because I have been following the race for the Republican presidential nomination closely, particularly Michele Bachmann’s rapid ascent through the summer months.

Bachmann during the most recent debate.

The author of this article, Libby Copeland, makes the great point that female politicians cannot come across as inordinately angry. This is clearly a double standard, as male politicians are seen as passionless stiffs if their veins aren’t bulging from their necks. Copeland traces the history of the angry mom’s engagement with politics, noting that Bachmann is certainly not the first to contend with this sensitive issue (see a video of Sarah Palin’s famous “mama grizzly” line below). Though I would have liked to see Abigail Adams included in the article’s slideshow, I appreciated the author’s overall historical approach. In some ways, Bachmann’s success is the most fascinating aspect of this season’s political landscape, in part because of her intellectual and religious background, but, in my opininon, in larger part because of her oft-repeated status as mom par excellence.

Copeland’s thesis can perhaps best be explained by this bit of analysis: “if the concerns of motherhood can be a launching pad for women in politics, as they were for Bachmann, it can also be risky to focus too much on them.” Copeland’s claim strikes me as true, but it is difficult to know for sure, as contemporary women’s participation in presidential politics is essentially unprecedented. The women she cites as Bachmann’s predecessors did not threaten the status quo of presidential politics quite like Bachmann does. In the end, I believe that Bachmann’s indignation will not spell the end of her candidacy, but rather the divide between her political ideas and those of the majority of American voters. Her anti-scientific stance on vaccines and birth control, for example, will hold her back more than her gender ever could. It remains to be seen, however, how far Bachmann can go and how willingly Americans will tolerate politicians who stand on soapboxes with high heels.

Welcome to LaForest’s Current Events Blog

2011-2012 Students:

Welcome to LaForest’s current events blog!

 You should visit this site for two main reasons:

-Come here to view my blog as an example of the work you should be doing on your own blog.

-Find links to your classmates’ blogs (at the bottom of the page), so that you can comment on their work.

Have a great academic year! EJL


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Religious America: Land of the Free, Home of the Ignorant

America is a land of paradoxes. Why do we eat chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, even though we know how disgusting they are? Why do we continue to drive our fortress-like SUVs, even though we know how our reliance on oil is negatively affecting the world’s political and environmental security? Why do we continue to buy seemingly flawless diamonds, even though we know that the diamond trade causes so much bloodshed in Africa? And, as this article from The New York Times brilliantly asks, why do we care so deeply about religion, even though we know next to nothing about it? This paradox is difficult to explain, and anyone who can should write a book about it and start planning how to decorate their new 20,000 square-foot mansion.

A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey tested Americans’ familiarity with their faiths and the faiths of others. The results were troubling, especially because the survey covered a topic that so many Americans hold in high regard. I could understand if Americans couldn’t name the current Senators from Idaho (one of whom is the beautifully named Sen. Crapo, by the way), but to be a Protestant and not know about Martin Luther is surprising and depressing to me. The historian in me sheds a tear that Ramadan remains a mystery to many Americans, especially because we tend to be so quick to be Islamophobic these days. Shouldn’t we be informed about the groups against which we disciminate?  This article, by Laurie Goodstein, also includes the ironic fact that atheists and agnostics performed better on these surveys than self-avowed religious people. Christopher Hitchens, a famous and prolific atheist featured in the video below, likely grinned like the Cheshire Cat when he heard the news. I guess that old adage “it takes one to know one” isn’t quite true when it comes to religion in America. If you think you are more informed than the average American, check out Pew’s survey here and see for yourself!

By and large, Ms Goodstein’s article is fair and bias-free. She seems amused that Americans would make so many errors on a test about religion, but she was not as shocked as I would have been that atheists outperformed religious Americans. She uses statistics from the survey quite well, but, by the end of her article, she simply lists the most fascinating tidbits from Pew. If I were her, I would have done more with these facts, perhaps even advancing a thesis for why the results came out as they did. In my opinion, then, many religious Americans choose to focus on positive thinking and on a spirituality that comforts rather than challenges. I wouldn’t go as far as Karl Marx did when he called religion a drug, but, on some level, Americans tend to skip over the nitty-gritty aspects of the examined religious life. I doubt that this negligence has always existed in this country, and, yet, I wonder how we Americans can become more informed and thoughtful about true religion. Perhaps the atheists have a solution?

Colonel Reb Thrown into the Dustbin of History

It is near impossible to grow up in the South without also cultivating a lifelong love for college football. Unlike New Englanders’ occasional and uninterested glances at collegiate sports, Southerners’ attachment to college football has a much deeper cultural significance. We get up at the crack of dawn to prep the grill and to make runs to the store for ice and supplies. We drive our gas-guzzling SUVs smothered in obnoxious SEC and ACC flags, decals, and vanity plates. We name our pets after gridiron heros. In short, many of us live and breathe college football. Along with that passion is our shared love for memorializing and, in some cases, for mythologizing the Southern past. Students who take American History in the South learn about a country defined not by the Revolutionary War but by the Civil War. Many of our political and social circumstances are still shaped by the war that started nearly 150 years ago. As William Faulker, a Mississippi man himself, wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It is because of these twin passions that this New York Times article is so fascinating. Its author, Robbie Brown, chronicles the University of Mississippi’s decision to retire its racist mascot, Colonel Reb, pictured below. Colonel Reb is without a doubt an unapologetic reference to the South’s plantation history, and Ole Miss, made famous during the Civil Rights Movement and as the location of Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side, is right to end its official relationship with such a destructive symbol. Another fascinating angle to this story is the parallel to many American schools’ recent attempts to reconsider their offensive Native American mascots. Though the reform at Ole Miss is incomplete and no less complicated (the Seminole Nation’s embrace of Florida State’s mascot comes to mind), it does reveal that Southerners continue to grapple with the contradictory legacies of the Civil War.

The New York Times article attempts to present this controversial issue objectively, but its bias against Colonel Reb shines through. The author seems to be unable to conceal his belief that Colonel Reb should be put out to pasture. He notes, revealingly, that Ole Miss is a “university where 14 percent of students are black.” Yet the author gives voice to Colonel Reb’s last holdouts, who insist that Colonel Reb should not be tossed aside because of the objections of a small number of students. I enjoyed another aspect of the author’s argument, namely that it is a wonder that a lowly mascot can hurt so many Americans’ feelings. An easy explanation for this effect would be that history continues to shape our lives and our relationships, but I would argue instead that it reveals the power of visual culture (see the humorous Star Wars-inspired video below) and the relevance of sports in Americans’ and especially Southerners’ lives.