Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Systems

“Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing”. These words, reportedly uttered by Vince Lombardi have been taken to unfortunate levels in sports. Performance enhancing drugs have affected many sports including track and field, baseball and cycling. College sports, while seemingly staying clear of PED issues, highlights the win at all costs mentality in other ways. Sports, which is supposed to be an extracurricular activity for college students, has become the focus at too many universities, with athletes who are students in name only, hired gun coaches, who commit all sorts of ethical violations in their quest for victory, and unethical administrators who should know better, joining in this very profane trinity.

To be sure there are many sports programs that combine the quest for winning with real academics. John Feinstein wrote a wonderful book about one such group of schools in “The Last Amateurs”. Most of the sports that do not produce large amounts of money (everything other than basketball and football), seem to find the balance as well. Still, it is difficult not become cynical as one follows college sports these days.

This is precisely why all of us, whether or not we are college basketball fans, should be rooting for Cornell this evening, when they take on basketball powerhouse Kentucky. Cornell, comes from the Ivy League, a league which plays most of its game on weekends to lead to maximal class time for it athletes. They play a deliberate though entertaining game that highlights passing and teamwork. Before this tournament began, Cornell had never won a single NCAA tournament game. Kentucky is led, if I can use that term, by John Calipari, a man who stands out for his sliminess and win at all costs mentality, in a profession where those traits are plentiful. Kentucky has a graduation rate of under 40%. Its star player John Walls is their latest hired gun, who will play one year and then continue on for the greener pastures of the NBA, where money can finally be handed to him over the table.

Kentucky is the favorite and will probably win the game. No matter what the score, it is clear to me that Cornell are the only winners playing tonight.

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