Tail Wagging the Dog

Michael Metzger

As the Tyrelle Pryor scandal drags down Ohio State’s football fortunes, a few sports pundits suggest stipends as a solution for financially strapped student-athletes. It’s a bad idea. Stipends add weight to an already big tail that’s wagging the dog.

The Pryor saga is the latest in a string of scandals involving college athletes illegally accepting money, gifts, cars, apartments, or selling memorabilia. The NCAA is investigating Ohio State—which means don’t hold your breath. It recently wrapped up its four-year investigation of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush. The swift work of NCAA sleuths resulted in USC vacating its 2004 national championship as well as 12 wins from the 2004 and 2005 seasons. At this rate, the NCAA will wrap up its investigation of Pryor about the time Pryor is wrapping up his NFL career.

In the meantime, several sports analysts propose stipends as a solution. Some suggest giving players from poorer families spending money to temper temptation. Others argue student-athletes are pawns in a sports monopoly reaping millions of dollars. Both arguments are bogus. Stipends sustain a broken system. Those in the faith community who understand the purpose of sports recognize stipends as mistakenly strengthening a tail already wagging the dog.

In Proverbs, 10:23, we read: “Doing wickedness is like sport to a fool, and so is wisdom to a man of understanding.” In a nutshell, sport is fun. Yet it’s also for gaining wisdom. In Proverbs 8:30-31, Wisdom is seen playing alongside God in creation. “I was daily his delight, playing always before him, playing in the world, his earth, and having my delight in the sons of men.” The frivolity found in creation was designed to produce wisdom.

This dynamic has not always been recognized in the religious community. The Church Father Tertullian asserted that there was no greater pleasure than cultivating the distaste for pleasure itself. Ignatius Loyola revealed his scorn for fun when he wrote: “I will not laugh or say anything that will cause laughter.”1 At least John Calvin got it right. “Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that He meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer.”2

Cardinal John Henry Newman also got it right. In 1852 he published a volume of lectures entitled The Idea of a University. “In order to have possession of the truth at all, we must have the whole truth; and no one science, no two sciences, no one family of sciences, is the whole truth.” The whole of education included the whole of reading, writing, arithmetic, as well as sports. This is the basis for broad or liberal education.

Fools don’t see sports this way. For them, sport is for greedy gain. It’s not part of a well-rounded education. Instead, sport can often mean cheating the system or cheating on a spouse, as in the case of Potiphar’s wife. When she attempted to seduce Joseph, he spurned her advances. Rebuffed, Potiphar’s wife played the role of victim and told her friends how Joseph was “making sport of us” (Gen.39:14). This is how fools play sports. When they don’t get what they feel entitled to, they play the role of victim. “I need spending money.” “I deserve part of the NCAA pot of gold.”

This foolishness is a cultural force today. In 1954, Sports Illustrated was launched. Up to that time, it was widely believed sports news could not fill a weekly magazine, especially during the winter. Time patriarch Henry Luce took a stab at it with SI. Good timing. Four years later, the Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played”—the first nationally televised game. In 1979, ESPN was launched. As recounted in Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shale describe the fledgling enterprise that rode cable television to makes sports “an economic and cultural force.”

Today, the tail of sports is wagging the dog of school. Stipends are no solution. They ignore the fact that most athletic departments operate at a loss. Athletes who feel victimized don’t take into account the sunk costs and operating expenses associated with big-time athletics. For example, the University of Michigan football team competes in a recently renovated stadium. The project cost $226 million dollars. Foolish athletes demanding stipends don’t appreciate how much it costs for them to play ball.

Stipends also make money scarce for other sports. They fail to consider Title IX, which says that for every sport offered to males, another sport must be offered to females. Only a few male NCAA football programs turn a profit. These profits underwrite all the male and female money-losing athletic programs. Stipends would drain a portion of these already scarce funds, reducing the number of sports offered to all students.

Offering stipends also overlooks the fact that a student-athlete is already subsidized to the tune of roughly $160,000 over four years at OSU. Try making $160,000 working at Starbucks. Of course, scholarships are supposed to be for scholars. When basketball recruit Greg Oden arrived at Ohio State in 2006, he said he was interested in majoring in finance. He liked math. By the time March Madness arrived, Oden was taking two courses—Sociology and the History of Rock and Roll. So much for scholarship.

Stipends are not a solution; they are steroids. They make an already big tail bigger. The solution is strengthening school, not enlarging the tail. School comes from the Greek skole and the Latin scola, meaning “leisure.” Education includes leisure, the kind of time necessary for the cultivation of intellect and the contemplation of ideas. It included sports as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic. If America’s universities became serious about liberal education, they’d offer scholarships to scholars, including student-athletes. If a little spending money was still needed, athletes could then find a summer job and see how most other students come up with the money to afford a college education. This way, the dog would be wagging the tail.

1 Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 80
2 Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.10.2)


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  1. Helps a bit to keep in mind that when Sports Illustrated was launched in 1954 it was hardly a medium for the promotion of popular sport. Even a glance at the cover stories and cover photos from the first year betrays the elitist slant: bird watching, the Princeton University Marching Band (Princeton?? Marching Band??)

    Popular sport and pop culture were not on the radar screen. The east coast Ivy League elites were in charge. And to top it off, you could check out the 1956 swimsuit issue, which featured supermodel Warren Spahn on the cover!

    But perhaps the debut of SI is the part of the first few of microtremors that set in motion a tidal wave of public obsession and consumer addiction to all things sport.

  2. There are many other things that could and perhaps should be done to change the system of revenue sports (i.e., football and basketball). Maintaining a basic GPA, not allowing drafts until graduation, etc. And what’s the point being made about sociology and scholarship? The current system is designed to get athletes quickly to the big paycheck.

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