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Thursday, January 1, 2015


As I was surfing the web idly early this morning, I came across a story in the NY TIMES about the huge increase in the TV money flowing to football-competitive colleges and universities -- $7.3 billion, according to the headline.  My  eye was caught by a quote from the Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, who two years ago tweeted:  "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”  As readers of this blog may recall, I have been deeply troubled by the twenty-year scandal at UNC Chapel Hill of phantom courses and phony grades meted out in roughly equal numbers by the African and Afro-American Studies Department and a member of the Philosophy Department to athletes and fraternity members.  [See my blog post of 7 November, 2014, titled "Heartsick."]

As I brooded on Cardale Jones' tweet during my morning walk, I was reminded of a lesson I learned from my older son, Patrick, more than thirty years ago.  Patrick was a chess prodigy.  Some time after observing me following the 1972 Fischer-Spassky world chess championship match on television, then five year old Patrick asked me to teach him how to play.  He very quickly became totally invested in the game, progressing in his early years from patzer to Master, to Senior Master, and then around his twentieth birthday to International Master and finally International Grandmaster.  Patrick became one of the strongest chess players America ever  produced, twice winning the U. S. Chess Championship and competing successfully on the world stage against the strongest grandmasters in the world.  [He is famous in chess circles for handing Gary Kasparov his shortest defeat on record, and although it was in a simultaneous exhibition between Kasparov and a small group of America's best young players, it was a signal achievement.]

I did not see all that much of Patrick in his teen years, inasmuch as he spent most of his time, when he was not at school, in his room studying chess,.  I ran into him one day in the kitchen of our Belmont, Massachusetts home, and eager for any conversation with him, asked what he was up to.  "I am studying rook-and-pawn endings," he replied.  [For those of you who are clueless about chess, these are endgames in which all the pieces have been removed save for rooks and pawns and the two kings.  Figuring out how to advance one's own pawn to the eighth rank so that it can become a queen -- or any other piece -- while stopping one's opponent from doing the same involves some very complex calculations.]  "Oh," I said, looking for some way to prolong the conversation, "how long have you been doing that?"  "Two weeks," Patrick said.  "Two weeks!" I blurted out, unthinking.  Patrick explained patiently, "Bobby Fischer once lived in a cabin in the woods for three months and did nothing but study rook-and-pawn endings."  "He must have been crazy," I expostulated.  Patrick fixed me with a dead serious gaze, as only a teenager can, and said flatly, "He never lost another rook-and-pawn ending in his life."  Then he went back upstairs to continue his study.

There is a very deep lesson in that story, if we care to learn it, and it has direct application to the subject  of money in college sports.  In virtually every big-time competitive sport, there are certain skills that it is essential to master, even though they may not be showy or crowd-pleasing.  In the old days, figure skaters earned much of their total scores in competitions from so-called "school figures," figure eights and such whose marks on the ice were measured to the millimeter by judges.  In modern basketball, free throws awarded for fouls often make the difference between winning and losing, even though they are much less dramatic than slam dunks and alley-oops.  Every real football aficionado knows that the game is won or lost on the line where those nameless behemoths with bulked-up bodies and incredibly quick hands open up the holes for the flashy halfbacks, or close them down.

If you want to compete in the bigs, you are certain to come up against someone who has taken the time and had the concentration and will-power to spend endless hours mastering the skills that separate winners from losers.  Patrick knew this well, because as a boy, he lost a twelve hour marathon against a Russian grandmaster that came down to precisely a rook-and-pawn endgame.  If a college basketball team wants to go to the Final Four, along the way it will come up against teams whose players have spent those extra hours refining the skills needed to get the ball in the basket.

Now, the mythology of college sports has it that the top teams consist of "scholar-athletes" who successfully combine their sport with a full load of serious courses in which they do credibly, or even outstandingly.  But I do not recall a basketball game between the University of Kentucky and Swarthmore College in which Kentucky outscored Swarthmore 112 to 7, but the referees awarded the win to Swarthmore because its students had better grades. 

Why is it so difficult for a student athlete on a nationally competitive team to attend equally to studies and to sport?  One reason I have already given -- the endless hours required to master the skills of the sport at a level that makes one truly competitive.  But there is a second reason:  if you are totally dedicated to a sport, as you must be to compete successfully on the national stage, you not only spend many hours each day perfecting your skills;  you also spend the rest of the time thinking about it, going over plays in your head, devising solutions to problems, preparing mentally for your next opponent -- and, of course, recovering from the beating you take every time you play a football or basketball game.

What then can a school like UNC Chapel Hill do?  Well, the simple answer is, Give up ambitions for national titles, and return to the original ideal of the scholar-athlete.  Fat chance.  The UNC basketball coach is paid four times as much as the Chancellor, and she is paid rather more than twice as much as the best paid professors in Arts and Sciences.  That tells us everything we need to know about institutional priorities.  The previous Chancellor, Holden Thorpe, lost his job over this scandal.  The present Chancellor, Carol Folt, was hired to clean things up, and it was she who brought in the big-time law firm that produced the Kenneth Wainstein Report.  But if she were to announce a series of reforms whose immediate consequence was a dramatic reduction in the Tar Heels' chances of going to the Final Four, my guess is she would be out on her ear.

All in all, I think Cardale Jones got it about right.


Acastos said...

Excellent post. You start with a paradoxical claim (we will all reflexively scoff at Cardale Jones), then through an interesting and illuminating discussion of Rook and Pawn endings (reducible, as I'm sure Patrick would have added had he more time to spare, to the Lucena and Philidor positions), as well of the more general principle which they illustrate, you manage to persuade us of the truth of the claim. Further, you do this without the unthinking and obligatory parrotting of Macolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hour theory. Thanks, Bob! Have a happy new year!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Acostos. Blogging is a bit like putting messqages in a bottle and tossing them into the ocean. One never knows whether they will be read and appreciated. :)

David Auerbach said...

It is indeed a nice post. Another solution that won't happen is to be honest about and have schools openly operate as the sponsors of farm teams (which they are, though not tied to a particular "major" league team) and pay the athletes a nice stipend along with an IOU for college education whenever they get around to wanting it. Some will, once they fail to make it to the bigs.
Re chess: Do you know Raymond Smullyan's book of retrograde chess problems?