Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore (Part Two)

Sports scandals are a dime a dozen.   But they can generally be put into two categories.   First, you have the scandals that are primarily about the sports world.  These include stories about athletes who take performing enhancing drugs, referees or judges who take bribes, or sports leagues that cover up the mind-boggling health problems caused by their product.   In each case, I don’t doubt that there are broader societal tie-ins, but these problems center around the games themselves and not the society at large.  

I don’t wish to poo-poo the importance of those classic sports scandals.  But candidly, I am even more interested when a scandal appears in the world of sports that focuses your attention less on the actual competitions than on the outside world.  Recently, two such scandals come to mind.

Have you seen the latest edition of Golf Digest?  Here’s the cover: It kind of leaves an impression, doesn’t it?   The scantily-clad hottie is Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend.   Paulina is not an accomplished golfer.   In fact, as far as I can tell, that’s not even a sports bra she’s wearing; it’s just a plain old bra.
When my wife saw the cover, she said “I assume she’s not a golfer.  She’s the prize at the end of the  course.”   More precisely, she’s the prize won by professional golfer Dustin Johnson, who is now Wayne Gretzky’s son-in-law.   My wife, a former high school valedictorian and Harvard Law School graduate, is surely used to living in a society where men see models as more prize worthy than scholars.  But I would have expected that a prominent magazine like Golf Digest would have ducked that whole brains-versus-beauty debate and focused instead on athletic prowess.  Couldn’t they have found a really bright or really pretty woman who actually played on the LPGA tour?   Did they really have to bypass women’s golf entirely and just adorn their latest issue with an unbridled tribute to T&A?   Apparently so.

I was listening to ESPN yesterday morning when they were talking about this scandal.  Mike Golic, one of the two men to whom that network entrusts its coveted morning drive-time slot despite being an admitted steroid abuser, was explaining the reason for Golf Digest’s decision.   According to Golic, true golf fans will buy the magazine regardless of who they put on the cover.  But if they show Paulina Gretzsky’s skin and curves, perhaps they will also attract another element of “reader.”   I see the logic in that position.  Then again, I also see the logic in taking performance-enhancing drugs.   Do I see the logic in unabashed sexism?  Or, for that matter, racism?  I suppose so, as long as there is an election to be won or a dollar to be made by trading in filth.

Truth be told, Golf Digest is no different than many other well-established institutions in American life.  These institutions focus more on what’s on the outside of a woman’s head than what’s on the inside.   If this magazine had simply applied its attitude toward women with a bit of subtlety and ambiguity, it would have stayed under the radar screen, but it just couldn’t help itself.  It had to announce itself and its motivations – greed and disrespect come immediately to mind.

If you want to read about the magazine’s rationalization for its cover-girl decision, be my guest.  I haven’t bothered.  I know racism when I see it and I know sexism when I see it.  Golf Digest has just announced itself as a sexist rag.  It’s really that simple.  

Before I change topics, I have a simple message for Mr. Golic: this is one golf fan who has no intention of reading Golf Digest in the future.  I encourage the rest of you to follow suit.

At the risk of sounding indifferent to sexism, the second scandal that I’d like to discuss is even more disturbing to me than the first.   It has also been around a few weeks longer, and yet for some reason, I never seem to hear about it on TV.   Perhaps that’s because the behavior at issue is so old hat and accepted that it’s no longer scandalous to the society at large.  But if that’s not an indictment of our culture, nothing is.

The story to which I am referring is known as the University of North Carolina Fake Classes scandal.   You can read about it at the following link:   According to a non-anonymous whistleblower, that venerable institution has created all sorts of ways in which “scholar-athletes” can get university credit for doing middle school work, if in fact they choose to do any work at all.  Allegedly, the problem begins with admitting athletes who have not demonstrated the skills to handle the academic rigors of college coursework.  Then, with the approval of university administrators, an entire network is created whereby athletes are allowed to negotiate their way around the curriculum without having to exercise their minds.  Rich or poor, and regardless of whether they pick up a book or attend a class, they get full rides to attend the university and keep their scholarships, while sometimes even getting As for their non-efforts.  The “scholars” at issue must feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.   You get to play the game you love, you don’t have to go to classes, you don’t have to accumulate debt, and you can make all sorts of business contacts with the university’s well-heeled boosters.   What’s more, increasingly you can listen to talking heads wax eloquent about how you should actually be PAID to play college sports.   Oh, those poor exploited scholar-athletes.

This story wouldn’t bother me so much if I thought the problem was confined to the “Tar Heels” of North Carolina.   Unfortunately, I fear the nicotine stain that surrounds that school’s athletic program can be found, to different degrees, in most universities with big-time athletic departments.  The joke that is the modern American student-athlete will be most blatantly on display this weekend at this year’s Final Four.  There, you can see the University of Kentucky trot out its latest group of freshmen basketball players who entered the university with the understanding that they will literally be “one and done.”   That’s right – no sophomore slump for them.   After their freshman year, they will be off to the NBA, and another group of scholars/roundball players will take their place on the hardwood and NOT in the classrooms.

It was the immortal Captain Renault who proclaimed to be “Shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”  Well, I’m no Renault.  I wasn’t shocked to read about the University of North Carolina and its separate track for athletes.  But I am dismayed at how little the media seems to give a damn.  Don’t you get it?   Thanks to an articulate, courageous whistleblower, the voices of truth and justice now have the University of North Carolina right where they want it.    Those voices can make an example of the university, shut down its football and basketball programs for years, and fire any venal administrator who can be demonstrably tied to the scandal.  And then, when other whistleblowers arise at other universities, these schools’ athletic programs can be shut down as well and their deans can be sent packing.  Sounds good, right?

Sounds like utopia to me – which literally means, “no place.”  Here in the USA, college football and basketball programs are the geese that lay the golden eggs, and I don’t foresee any developments that will threaten to shut down that egg-laying.  The same universities that think nothing of taking gobs of money from students who already are deeply in debt will continue to roll out the red carpet for their jocks.  And the media moguls who control the way stories like this one are covered will continue to look the other way, while at the same time expecting their underlings to refer to the ballplayers as student-athletes or scholar-athletes.  In so many cases, they are neither.  They are simply frauds, just like the coaches, deans, and “sports-journalists” who enable them.

Sorry for the depressing post.  But hey, nobody ever promised a rose garden when it comes to talking about scandals.  In my next post, there will be no scandal-mongering.  I promise.

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