In today’s Times, William Rhoden writes a valentine to Harvard’s basketball team which effectively buries the once laudatory Ivy League notion of the scholar-athlete. What matters, Rhoden says, is that big-time Harvard basketball has the power to unite the campus and “democratize” the university. That little cheating thing? Well, here’s how he describes it:
Casey and Curry were beyond hungry. They were ravenous. Voted co-captains for the 2012-13 season, they voluntarily withdrew from Harvard that academic year to avoid the possibility of being ruled ineligible as a result of the university’s investigation into a cheating scandal. While the scandal involved more than 150 students, not all of them athletes, Casey saw his name leaked and his photograph appear in news reports.
In other words:
—they didn’t withdraw because they cheated, or even because Harvard was going to find that they cheated; they withdrew because of Harvard’s investigation into a cheating scandal.
—they didn’t withdraw because they did something wrong, but “to avoid the possibility of being ruled ineligible.”
—but, hey, whatever they did, a lot of other students did it too. So that makes it okay then.
—in fact, Casey and Curry were victims here, as somehow the fact that heavily recruited basketball players were going to leave campus for a year became public. Outrageous!..
…And probably racist too. Rhoden quotes Charles Ogletree—who himself has had an issue, unacknowledged here, with academic integrity—as saying,
“We made it clear that Harvard had a problem,” Ogletree said. “It involved athletes, women and men, black, white and brown. We can’t make it seem like it’s a black problem.”
I don’t recall anyone ever saying that it was a black problem, but the important thing is: Casey and Curry are really good basketball players!
(Also: Who is the “we”?)
Rhoden goes on to belittle the concerns of people who worry about the inevitable baggage that comes from a big-time basketball program, saying that hypocritical Harvard professors raised this concern with coach Tommy Amaker even as they asked him why he hadn’t yet won a basketball title.
This is the kind of stereotyping of namby-pamby professors—particularly unfortunate in this context—to which Rhoden would object if it were applied to athletes, and I am calling bullshit on this unsourced assertion. Rhoden, who is often an apologist for athletic misbehavior, offers no evidence of this professorial hypocrisy except a suggestive hyperlink. It links to one of his own columns, which also provides no evidence of this suggestion and, in fact, doesn’t reference the idea in any way whatsoever.
And finally, Rhoden argues that basketball is great because everyone likes basketball, and it’s good for everyone to like Harvard.
Rhoden quotes Jonathan Walton, minister of Memorial Church, to that effect:
“When we think about excellence at Harvard, that excellence tends to be tied with exclusivity. One of the things that basketball has done, now that it’s in the conversation as representing excellence at Harvard, has been to attract people from so many different areas. People who otherwise may not engage or interact with one another flock to these games, they come to the arena to cheer this team.”
Finally Rhoden quotes Jerry Green, a professor at the business school, who argues for an end to Harvard exceptionalism.
“We are an American university,” said Jerry R. Green, the chairman of Harvard’s standing committee on athletic sports. “This is part of the fabric of American life. When you see what goes into March Madness and everything that leads up to it, I think we want to be part of that. We’re part of the fabric of American life.”
I think Harvard was part of the fabric of American life before it decided that its basketball team ought to win a national championship. How quickly Harvard’s centuries-old values get thrown under the bus because winning is fun. Or, perhaps, I’m being naive, and this is simply an extension of that philosophy from the areas of political and financial power into the athletic realm. Harvard has to be the best at everything.
There’s a subtext to Rhoden’s piece which makes me uncomfortable to write about, but it’s there, so let’s just say it: This is an article which glosses over questions of academic integrity because the subjects it focuses on are African-American and the writer, who is also African-American, believes that to raise issues of academic integrity and big-time athletics may be racist.
Of course, one could also argue the opposite: that to hold athletes to a lesser academic standard simply because they happen to be black is also racist.
Just for the record, let me say that I don’t think race has any place in this discussion at all, and it’s a shame that Rhoden injected race into it, especially in an oblique and not entirely honest way. There is clearly no correlation between race and academic integrity. To me the issue is that, as a general rule, white or black or whatever, you can not play sports at that level and at the same time be academically prepared for Harvard or do academic work at a high level once you’re there.
I know there are exceptions, and I’m sure some readers of this blog, who believe that Harvard is immune to the laws of big-time athletics—that even as Harvard abandons its exceptionalism it will remain exceptionalist in one self-satisfying way—will happily point them out. That’s why I emphasize that it’s a general rule, as UNC and other universities regularly find out.
Now, it’s certainly possible to argue that not everyone at Harvard has to perform academic work at a high level. You could also argue that there are plenty of other extracurricular activities which are so time-consuming that Harvardians who engage in them don’t try to work at a high academic level. And those activities may not even bring Harvard the media attention and alumni contributions that a high-powered basketball program will.
And in fact, I’d be pretty sympathetic to those arguments. They have the virtue of honesty.
But no one’s making them. The argument I’m hearing is that, well, Harvard had to change because, you know, our basketball team sucked and who doesn’t want to be part of March Madness. (To which I reply, one can imagine abundant reasons.) But don’t worry, we changed without really changing.
I just don’t find that argument convincing.