Wednesday November 14th, 2007

A few weeks ago, I offered up the thoughts of Gary Walters, the distinguished athletic director at Princeton, that sport should be held in the same high regard as art. I thought it was a rather interesting and cogent opinion for someone to posit ... but in the fabled words of the longtime football announcer, Keith Jackson: "Whoa, Nellie!"

Never have I suffered such a battering. I think the nicest thing I was called in the responses that poured in, dripping with blood, was "apologist dingbat." And, hey, I was just the messenger.

One thing I learned. Defenders of the arts can be as mean as any defensive lineman stoked on steroids.

But then, after I withdrew the slings and arrows from my person and assessed the reaction, I realized how almost all the responses didn't really bother to address the question posed: whether, in fact, sport might be an art. No, they were just mad, full of rage and fury. But it did serve to inform me all the more how much antipathy there does exist toward the American system of school sports and toward the coddled pseudo students who play the games.

Let me read just a few of the more restrained comments:

"Yes, sport should be considered an art. But then it could be dropped in hundreds of schools, just like music or art."

"When was the last time we heard a news report about the band or orchestra at some ... powerhouse involved in a scandal where students did not take their tests themselves."

"Spare me please! Primary and secondary art and music programs are going the way of the passenger pigeon while college coaching staffs ... are compensated like CEOs."

"High school building and renovation plans always include gymnasiums and weight rooms, but auditoriums are more viewed as unnecessary expenditures."

"It is a shame that pandering to our more basic, limbic instincts with sports pays better than the pursuit of the higher self through art."

And on and on. I think what exasperates so many people, represented so well by these angry and sarcastic letters, is that the situation only grows more lopsided, that sports in our schools and colleges are not only ascendant, but greedier and more invulnerable than ever. For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported that donations to athletic departments have increased dramatically, even as gifts to education itself haven't budged. College stadiums only become more opulent, so-called student-athletes more outrageous.

I'm afraid the game is over. In our academia, the arts must be satisfied with the leftovers. Just consider the frank words of surrender spoken recently by John V. Lombardi, the president of the Lousiana State University System:

"Mega college athletics ... prospers because for the most part we (our faculty, our staff, our alumni, our legislators, our trustees ...) want it. We could easily change it, if most of us wanted to change it. All protestations to the contrary, we ... do not want to change it."

But Mr. Lombardi is only echoing what a certain Groucho Marx said in the movie Horse Feathers, when, as President Quincy Adams Wagstaff, he asked the faculty: "Have we got a stadium? ... Have we got a college? ... Well, we can't support both. Tomorrow, we start tearing down the college."

That was 75 years ago. It hasn't changed, and, I'm sorry, but good people of the arts: it won't.

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