Monday, April 28, 2008

In loco agentis

I was finishing reading a Sports Illustrated from a couple of weeks ago, and one of the articles concerned the rehab of University of Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon. Dixon tore his ACL this past season, likely moving down in the NFL draft (he was drafted yesterday in the fifth round). I've seen him on TV a couple of times, he is a very exciting player, and I wish him the best in his recovery.

The article opens with a description of the University of Oregon training facility:
...looks like the spa at a five-star boutique hotel, if all the guests were between 18 and 23 and the bulk of them weighed more than 300 pounds. The floors are finished oak, the walls smoked glass, the lighting soothingly dim. The 15,000-square-foot complex includes 25 stainless steel massage tables, a pharmacy lit with green neon and examination rooms for a dentist and an ophthalmologist.
Dixon is running on an underwater treadmill, while a university intern records him, then posts the footage to Dixon's website "so that NFL coaches, scouts and general managers can monitor the progress of his surgically repaired left knee."

I could rail against the remarkable facilities granted to elite athletes at our educational institutions; Nike founder Phil Knight is largely responsible for this five-star spa, T. Boone Pickens has given many millions to Oklahoma State for sports, and so forth. But I've pretty much given up on this topic. Rich people can do what they want with their money, and, if they choose to dump their millions into winning another game on the gridiron or the hardwood, that's their right (yes, I realize that Knight has financed those contributions largely through sweatshop labor - I don't buy Nike shoes, and that's about all I can do for now).

No, the point of this post comes from this sentence:
For five months Oregon has deployed its considerable resources to another project: reconstructing the quarterback who was once the nation's best and preparing him for the NFL draft on April 26-27.
Here we have a state university, one funded in part by the taxpayers of Oregon (to the tune of $3,232 per student, which the University contends is woefully low - seems OK to me). Yet it devotes time and money to moving one student up in the professional draft, instead of trying to improve its 112th-place standing in the US News & World Report college rankings.

I'm aware of all the arguments, all variants of "we invest in him now, he gives us big donations later." The same points apply to the oft-heard idea that players in the revenue-generating sports should be cut in on the deal, that football and basketball players should be openly paid.

But can't we at least pretend, for four years, that we don't have a privileged class of fast-running, hard-hitting, marginally-thinking young people? Look, I have been a sports fan my whole life, and I accept that the market will reward professional athletes in a disproportional way. I have seen the way that adults fawn over 15-year-olds who can catch a football, distorting their egos forever. Our creation of a deity class of symbolic warriors is complete.

However, there is no reason to officially consecrate this thinking. A public university should at least pretend that all students are equal. If Dennis Dixon needs an intern to chronicle his rehab so he can move up in the draft, let him pay for one. Open these state-of-the-art facilities to every student (actually, other students have a bigger claim, they're actually paying tuition).

Our colleges have done everything they can to move away from in loco parentis, the idea that they have a responsibility to stand in the "place of parents." Fearing lawsuits, administrators look the other way when underage drinking is rife on campus. Heaven forfend they act like adults and enforce regulations on their "customers." (That thinking has even extended to high schools. The high school nearest my house features students smoking across the street; apparently school officials are incapable of walking over and telling the kids to cut it out - after all, they're on private property.)

On the other hand, when a young man has the opportunity to grab a lucrative professional sports career, no expense or attention is too much. In effect, the University of Oregon is acting as an unpaid agent for Dennis Dixon. Don't we all wish the Placement Office would go that extra mile for every single student?

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