THE VOICE OF REASON
Baylor

WINNING AT ALL COSTS – REALLY?

In a recent conversation with a septuagenarian friend of mine, whom I have known since the fifth grade, he began musing about what many Texans regard as almost unthinkable, definitely countercultural, and a social sin. It was not suicide, but it was close to it. Stumbling out of his mouth was a profane lamentation concerning the “ghetto mentality infecting college football.” He announced with indignation that he was looking to adopt another pastime. Can you believe it? A Texan gives up college football only when he is six feet under or his team has lost ten seasons in a row. (Actually, I am not certain about the latter contingency.)  

Yet I must confess that I too have been reassessing my enthusiasm for and dedication to the sport. Let me explain. As a resident of Central Texas, I have paid particular attention to the publicity in Waco and the surrounding area regarding the "winning football program" at Baylor University. The university’s head football coach, Art Briles, admits, quite magnanimously it would seem, to practicing a philosophy of “second chances.” Giving a young man an additional opportunity to prove he can perform as a university athlete, conditioned upon his assurance that he will accept the social and academic responsibilities commensurate with the honor, is commendable. At first blush, who would disagree? 

There are numerous head football coaches, too many to name, who share Mr. Briles’ philosophy. They often discourse with the fervor of an evangelist about providing opportunities for a university education to young, underprivileged men. Such rhetoric strikes many observers as disingenuous, especially when most of these young men chance to speak in public. The problem is not so much that they are typically inarticulate, but that they appear light-years from even an elementary understanding of grammar.  

The philosophy of second chances appears not only to entail bogus claims and to commend a suspect product, but it also raises troubling moral concerns. What does it mean to an exemplary high school, or junior college, student yearning for an opportunity to play in a highly touted football program but never given even a first chance? There are, after all, a limited number of positions on a Big 12 football team, although there are a vast number of players competing for them. Here is the moral problem in a nutshell: why should an athlete who has squandered a first chance be given a second when many deserving athletes have never received a first?  

These questions incline one to zoom in on Mr. Briles’ reasoning. It may well appear that his philosophy of second chances, when subjected to strict scrutiny, is little more than a ruse for offering scholarships to malefactors in order that he as a coach can enjoy a winning record.  One consideration we need to weigh in evaluating this possibility is to ask who benefits from Mr. Briles’ philosophy and who does not. There is an answer that suggests itself. He and his football team immediately benefit. "Exhibit A" is the team’s won-loss record during the past few seasons. But make no mistake about it: the Baylor University community does not benefit, either academically or socially, and this sad fact is especially evident by the number of women on campus who have suffered brutal sexual assault from team members. 

The philosophy of second chances appears strangely consistent with the maxim that winning is not everything, but the only thing.  I am wondering whether this may have pervaded Mr. Briles’ decision to recruit players such as Shawn Oakman, Sam Ukwuachu, Tevin Elliott, Tre’Von Armstead, and Shamycheal Chatman, all caught up in unwise, if not also criminal, behavior. 

Perhaps what has happened at Baylor will cause a piercing light to be cast upon college football in general and this, in turn, will necessitate not only coaches and university administrators, but also spectators, to re-evaluate their priorities and to question the unconscionable price often paid to field a winning college football team.

April 24, 2016