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In spite of a warnin’ voice that comes in the night
And repeats, repeats in my ear:
Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win?

Big-Time College Sports

Use your mentality, wake up to reality.
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin
‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin.

From the song “I’ve got you under my skin,” introduced in the film, Born to Dance (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), 1936. Words and music by Cole Porter*

Cole Porter’s lyrics are about intimate relationships, not about college football, but the message of “Skin” represents an interpretation of today’s big-time college athletics. It’s “under our skin,” a prominent and durable feature of the contemporary American lifestyle. With the start of another college football season we’re drawn to it magnetically, enthralled by its touch.

But “watch for what you wish” is Porter’s rule: there’s danger in an irresistible force. You know the risks, but you end up doing it anyway—even though you know things will turn out badly. A final plea (for sanity) goes unheeded, Porter asserts, but emotions are too simply powerful to resist—desire trumps logic.

Porter's words could be a message to college presidents about the dangers lurking in college athletics today. For sure, big-time college athletics has dysfunctional aspects. Anyone paying attention knows that. Off-field incidents, particularly, represent an example of Porter’s “warnin voice that comes in the night, and repeats and repeats in the ear.” Things just aren’t right.

Who could have imagined the circumstances that took place at Penn State, one of the country’s best public universities? It seems surreal that many children were abused over the years, but consider also how badly the university managed the situation—with top administrators implicated in an alleged cover-up. At Ohio State, a national championship football coach lost his job because of players’ behaviors and his response to it. The Rutgers basketball coach was fired for player abuse and the athletics director soon followed him out the door for not dealing with the matter appropriately. But, then, the successor AD (in prior coaching roles) was accused by her former players of abusing them.

There’s the alleged rape of a Florida State co-ed by the school’s star quarterback, a Heisman Award winner and leader of a national championship team. Never at issue was whether a sex act occurred (DNA evidence); only at issue was consensus. A few months later the same player was caught stealing food from a local supermarket. The list goes on…booster involvement at the University of Miami, financial benefits to a star running back and his family (Southern Cal), and academic fraud at the University of North Carolina.

There’s even more…and some of it—well—is bizarre. Consider the case of pesticide sabotage of trees near Auburn’s stadium (by a University of Alabama fan).And get this: a player was baptized on a school’s football field with players and coaches attending—at a major public university, no less. A Google search for ‘college athletic scandals 2014,’ yielded 460,000 results (9/1/14).

It’s a pattern of troubling behavior. Perhaps the most stunning thing is that it’s happening at universities, the last place you’d look—based on mission at least. Yet, when you look at the record, the setting doesn’t seem to matter.

Underlying questions—rarely answered, let alone raised--include: How do big-time athletic programs square with the fundamental purpose of higher education? How might schools (and governing bodies) put in place institutional controls to manage the downside of the athletic programs they’ve built?

For one thing, the differences between college and pro are blurred. Look at the level of coaches’ salaries; the offering of financial incentives for winning; the investment in athletic infrastructure, including facility size and support structures; the expansion of suite boxes for high-end supporters; the widespread use of seat licensing, which requires paying a fee upfront for the right to purchase season’s tickets; and the phenomenal inflow of TV revenue from broadcasting rights. All of this applies to pro and college alike. In college there’s an arms-race underway, too, with institutions competing with each other to raise more money, build new facilities, attract better athletes, and grab more TV audiences.

Underlying questions—rarely answered, let alone raised--include: How do big-time athletic programs square with the fundamental purpose of higher education? How might schools (and governing bodies) put in place institutional controls to manage the downside of the athletic programs they’ve built?

But there seems to be little room for nostalgic interpretations of what should, could, or might be. The real issue seems to be accepting that times have changed. If that’s accurate, then Porter had it right again: “Use your mentality, wake up to reality.”

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But what are the consequences of maintaining the status quo? When framed that way, the philosophical question of “ought” comes sharply into view. Author Sherrilynn Kenyon expresses the concept well and she does it in 9 words: “Just because you can (build monster athletic programs), doesn’t mean you should.” (emphasis added)

While it seems logical to protect what’s special about big-time college athletics—and carve away things that threaten it—logic seems out of touch. What’s lacking today is a serious, meaningful, and consequential dialogue about how we might proceed in a more restrained, reasonable manner. Dialogue of that sort befits the nature of higher learning because it’s consistent with what happens on university campuses every day. Besides, what universities teach doesn’t only come by way of the classroom. Universities also teach by how they act.

Adjusting course will require courageous leadership. Do the principals—those who run our major institutions, manage our major athletic programs, and oversee our major athletic conferences, including the NCAA—see the problem as severely as it’s presented here?

While there’s some self-propelled movement the nature of the remedies seem mismatched to the underlying challenge, much like if a physician prescribed an antibiotic for fighting cancer. Real change seems to be coming via court rulings while another important change route—public protest—isn’t even on the radar screen. Why? Princeton’s Elaine Showalter writes that (any) “…mass movement requires a clear goal, compelling enough to unite people across the dividing lines…/and it/…also requires charismatic leaders to galvanize its adherents into effective action.” There’s none of that yet.

And if we take Porter at his word, the odds are stacked against it. Why?


…just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin
‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin.

Help us from ourselves.

Frank Fear
The Sports Column


*With a hackneyed boy-meets-girl plot (typical of Hollywood offerings in the ‘30s) time hasn’t been overly kind to the film, Born to Dance. The film’s songs, though, are another story: they’re masterpieces of the ballad era, “standards” in today’s terms. The launch appeal was magnified by how the music was presented to theatre audiences in late 1936 and early 1937—through the inaugural use of stereophonic sound. Tunes like “You’d be so easy to love” are as recognizable today as they were then—the product of brilliance—crafted by the great American songwriter, Cole Porter, who wrote the music and penned the words.

With beautiful melody and memorable lyrics the film’s feature song is “I’ve got you under my skin,” which was nominated as the Academy’s Best Song that year. Still fashionable after 75 years, the ballad has been recorded by at least fifty major artists, including Frank Sinatra and Perry Como in early years and by Diana Krall and Rod Stewart in contemporary times.

We gain insights into “Skins” lyrics by understanding Cole Porter’s life and styleBorn into wealth, he lived extravagantly, here and abroad, distancing himself from the poverty and distress of The Depression Years. A purveyor of self-excess, he hosted lavish parties at his Paris home. With rumors of sexual forays and drug use, Porter was both creative genius and pleasure-seeker. Much of his life involved balancing the two, a quest made more difficult in 1937 when his legs were crushed in a horse-riding accident. Refusing to have his legs amputated, Porter lived in excruciating pain, his work a refuge from physical agony.

Porter’s edgy lifestyle no doubt provided fertile ground for imagining the lyrics of “Skin.” He offers a powerful, enduring message in the song, a message that is often understood only in retrospect … after a person goes through an emotionally difficult experience (caught in a bind or embroiled in a mess). Those are the times when Porter’s words really ring true.