College Athletics and the Common Good

On February 7, 2014, in college students, by Betsy

by Anthony Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He is also a Ruth Institute Circle of Experts Member.

This article was first published February 7, 2014, at

If we looked at actual young men and women, and not abstractions, we might begin to think of other things besides the ratio of members of each sex participating in this or that activity. We might think about love.

A few weeks ago, I was taken to task for yawning in public. The American and Canadian women’s Olympic hockey teams got into a brawl, and I yawned about it in a comment box appended to the report on ESPN. I made a mild jest to the effect that very few people give a passing thought to women’s hockey.

Someone then notified a colleague of mine, whom I have never met. Two days before Christmas, he wrote to tell me that I was “sexist” and “ignorant,” and that Providence College evidently has a lot more work to do to establish “diversity in all its forms.” He suggested a couple of possibilities for my re-education. I refrained from asking him which official had given him oversight of my opinions regarding women’s hockey, especially since no official had given me oversight of his opinions. I did reply, giving my opinion on college athletics in general and their dubious effect on the common good of the students, but he was interested only in the politics of it all, and he ignored what I had to say.

On the specific matter of athletics, there certainly are a lot of bad things to say about the NCAA and its abuse of sometimes marginal students to prop up extraordinarily lucrative television contracts. College football and men’s basketball are multi-billion-dollar businesses, dependent entirely upon the efforts of the players, who receive none of the profits, who often receive even less of an education than their classmates do, and who are mostly forgotten once they earn their diplomas. That is, if they do earn them; some programs are notoriously bad at ensuring that their players graduate. But I didn’t want to get into the corruption of the NCAA.

Instead I asked about the good of sport itself—and I do believe that it is a great good. If we agree that it is good, then it seems only right that a college should try to extend that good to as many students as possible, in a variety of venues and forms, and in such a way as to help bring students together in common enterprises. But does the typical college do so?

Let us suppose that the campus has a large gym for basketball, a rink for hockey, a field for soccer and rugby, another field for field hockey and track, a field for softball, and an astroturf field for lacrosse and intramural field sports. That would pretty much describe Providence College, where I teach. There are one or two other areas where smallish games can be played, but that is about it. All of those fields are reserved for the special use of the college teams and for intramural teams that book the astroturf.

In other words, space is at a high premium. Certain areas are cordoned off for the use of very few students; twenty out of four thousand, in the case of the softball field. Why should this be so?

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