Friday, December 19, 2008

What do French Gold Medals Have to do with American College Football?

Bernard Laporte, French Sports Minister, recently announced a new initiative designed to make France "among the premiere sporting nations" by 2016. He notes that France won a paltry 40 medals in Beijing and "too few were gold." So, he proposes resources be used to build a massive, state-of the art training facility for "elite" athletes and to restructure the way these elites are selected and managed.

There is much we could question about Laporte's initiative (read the entire speech here): Why finance the elite at the expense of the many? Why follow a British model (in sports, the French are always looking across the channel)? Why does he want to impose a reporting procedure that imitates the business world when I'm pretty sure the business world has been having some problems lately on that front? Why does he overuse of the expression "ultra-modern," not employ a proof reader (apparently), and use too many exclamation points!!!!?

But the most basic and most pertinent question may be: who cares how many medals a country wins and what does it prove? Do more medals really translate into a "better" country?

Certainly a stronger economy, larger population, better technology (and pharmaceuticals), and more leisure time can all contribute to better elite sporting achievements. But these factors would all be present without gold medals. To state the obvious, gold medals are a result, not a cause.

Laporte cursorily argues that improving elite sporting performances (and limiting the "elite" to a smaller number of athletes) will help France's economy by "spreading the light of our country throughout the world." But funneling the bulk of state euros to the elite athletes means neglecting public infrastructure and potentially alienating a large class of consumers: those who without access will never begin practicing a sport. Does Thierry Herny's success translate into more jobs in France? Will another canoeing gold medal mean millions in sponsorship deals worldwide for French companies? Je doute...

Laporte's other argument is that investing in the few translates into social gains for the many: they have champions that unify them. Maybe. But I for one would rather see a new bike path built (that is open to everyone) than to see a U.S. track cyclist win gold.

Historically, the social argument for winning Olympic medals coincides with a country either hoping to hide serious failings or promote a morally suspect imperialist agenda (the same can be said for hosting the games; see, for example, 1936 Germany, 1968 Mexico, 1980 USSR, 1984 USA). If China has attempted to increase their Olympic medal clout, it is because they are attempting to both provide rationalization to foreign corporations who invest in China despite human rights violations (more about this) and rally nationalistic support for an anachronistic regime. The same could be said of the U.S. where we were so caught up in Phelps-mania that we ignored Chinese human-rights violations and forgot momentarily about rising price of gas and the wars in Irak and Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that I'm not convinced "going for the gold" is a good use of public funds, here or in France.

So what does this have to do with college football?

Laporte, midway through his talk, calls for the creation of a "Harvard of Sport" that he describes as "a French Olympic and sporting campus."

Harvard is the birthplace of American college sports, and particularly of college football. It is where the elite played to prove themselves disciplined, strong, and morally upright. Harvard is also where colleges began to care about winning games. In England, winning was of little consequence: it was about the spectacle and tradition of the matches. But in the U.S., winning meant more students would want to attend Harvard than Yale, and they would bring their money with them.

But I have the same nagging question about college football today as I do about France and gold medals. Why does it matter if a college team wins games?

According to the NCAA Knight Commission Report, the reasons are not economic: contrary to popular belief, college athletics is almost always a drain on a university's finances, even with donors, ticket sales, etc.

And if the economic argument is moot, what about the social one? Does winning provide something to a university that the classroom cannot? Again, maybe.... There is an amount of cohesion that may not be gained by any other campus activity. But like the gold medal chase, the quest for college football wins, too, may hide other agendas. Murray Sperber, in his book Beer and Circus, maintains that college sports keep students happy who are otherwise receiving a lousy education. He's exaggerating some (I hope...). But it could certainly be argued that the same objectives of school unity, exercise, teamwork, etc. could be achieved with much less fanfare and less money. Division II or III might be an example for the big schools to follow...

To summarize...

To monsieur Laporte: the government should put money into sporting infrastructures where it will benefit the most people and improve the overall health and well-being of citizens instead of simply helping elite athletes shave a millisecond off their time in the 100-meter dash. And to the NCAA: instead of pouring money into new stadiums, practice facilities for a few students, and huge salaries for some coaches, focus instead on the general student population and (dare I suggest it?) make education the top priority.

If you don't, I'll keep comparing you to the French.

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