Background

President Barack Obama is an intelligent, articulate, thoughtful man. He wrote, with his own mind and pen, the autobiography Dreams from My Father -- not a ghost-written job like JFK's Profiles in Courage, meant to add a bit of lustre to an intellectually run-of-the-mill candidate, but a real indication of its author's intellectual stature. This contributed in no small part to his victory in the the U.S. presidental election.

President Barack Obama thus arrived in the White House as one of the very few presidents in the last two hundred years who might be expected to honor the values of higher learning in America -- colleges and universities that are able to escape the "grade 13" syndrome and offer bright and intellectually engaged students a genuine education.

But there was a problem. For all his undoubted intelligence, President Barack Obama is also a politician. American politicians have to prove to millions of people that they are "regular guys," that they can pass the "I'd like to sit down and have a beer with him" test that is the real measure of political success in the United States.

A standard way to do this is sports. If you show that you can relate to Joe Six Pack by talking about how your team or his team "needs more pass dee-fense," Joe will take you as a regular guy and vote for you. He will not despise you because you read books or write books or use words longer than one syllable in your speeches.

President Barack Obama's solution to the Joe Six Pack problem was to play a lot of pick-up basketball during the campaign, showing that he was a regular guy and someone you might sit down and have a beer with even if he had read a bit of John Stuart Mill, whoever that is.

This is okay. American politics demands its debasements. The Joe Six Pack problem is one you've got to solve or you won't get elected. President Barack Obama did this by pumping twice and driving left and getting a damp streak of sweat down the middle of his tee shirt and showing that he was a Regular Guy. Good for him.

But then -- it was a terrible moment in a new presidency otherwise shining with hope -- Barack Obama went farther. He assumed he had to go on truckling to Joe Six Pack even though he was now in the White House. He didn't realize that doing this would cost him a great deal of dignity, and honor, and an otherwise deserved reputation for being thoughtful and intelligent.

It started when President Barack Obama started making noises about how he, President of the United States, would like to see the Bowl Championship Series -- the ugly holiday spectacle of commercialized college sports at its near worst -- reorganized. He had actual opinions about how the semi-pro teams that wear college names on their jerseys ought to be matched against each other. It was embarrassing. One wanted to look the other way.

Then it got worse. During "March Madness," the ultimate degradation of academic and intellectual values in TV America, the time when, for an entire month, American colleges and universities line up to turn themselves into marketing vehicles for corporate brands, President Barack Obama did a "presidential pick 'em" for the press.

Why was it an ugly episode? Well, for one thing, it put President Barack Obama in the company of jock-sniffing American presidents who try to use televised sports as a way of showing that they are regular guys. Richard Nixon, for instance, who used to actually call up NFL coaches to suggest plays during crucial games, pathetically imagining that this would show his regular American guyness. The same Richard Nixon who, when he went down in the night to talk to student Vietnam War protestors gathered by the Washington Memorial, couldn't think of anything to discuss except how their football teams were doing that year.

It didn't work. Nobody ever wanted to sit down and have a beer with Richard Nixon.

The Obama presidency is young. President Barack Obama still has time to learn that he can preserve his dignity by devoting himself to matters of genuine civic importance and keeping his mouth shut about "March Madness pick 'ems."

It is time for one of his advisors to say "Mr. President, what you're doing seems awfully, how does one say, low rent. We're sorry to have to point it out, but you really can't go on this way."

Meanwhile, here is a piece written by a member of the Drake Group about President Barack Obama's disastrous "March Madness pick 'em."

We can only hope that President Barack Obama reads the letter, takes it to heart, and gets out of the Joe Six Pack "who'd you like to sit down and have a beer with" degradation of presidential jocksniffing forthwith.

The brutal truth about college sports:

Who will tell the president?

 

By Frank G. Splitt

March 24, 2009

 

Preface – The Drake Group’s Open Letter to the President was delivered to the White House the same day, Wednesday, March 18, 2009, that Doug Lederman reported on Florida State's fight against charges of academic corruption and President Obama announced his ‘final-four’ picks for the NCAA's March Madness Basketball Tournament. Taken together these three events reveal a troubling story—headlined telling the brutal truth about college sports.

The Open Letter – The open letter to the president addressed the challenge to get academics-over-athletics priorities re-established at America’s colleges and universities that are held captive to the NCAA’s commercial interests5—asking for assistance from the executive branch of government to see that compliance to federal requirements for the NCAA’s tax exemptions are enforced.

The letter stated that The Drake Group believes it is time to address the government’s subsidization of the NCAA—to hold the NCAA accountable for the substantial financial support it receives from America’s taxpayers and to halt the NCAA’s misuse and abuse of federal tax policies. It also stated that the Group believes reform is highly unlikely without government action—implying that the tax issue is the NCAA's Achilles heel.

Secretary Arne Duncan, U.S. Department of Education, received a copy of the related press release—along with additional background and reference material—as did Senator Charles Grassley, the past Chair and now Ranking Republican Member of the Senate Finance Committee, and several other members of Congress.

The Lederman Report – The Lederman report prompted a number of comments6 related to the corruption at America's colleges and universities supporting big-time football and basketball programs. Most members of Congress likely hope nobody will pay attention to this corruption and the related erosion of academic integrity, as well as notice their long-time failure to oversee the NCAA cartel as it worked over the years to professionalize big-time football and men’s basketball programs.

Sportswriters are no doubt as conflicted as members of Congress when it comes to exposing the NCAA as it continues to employ secrecy and disingenuousness as it resists the establishment of meaningful measures of transparency, accountability, and oversight. The simple act of asking the NCAA and/or its member schools to tell the truth about their operations could risk job security.

The President’s White House Pick 'em – The picks were made at a White House event orchestrated by ESPN and accompanied by a great deal of hoopla and national evening news coverage. March Madness provides a good case in point for the real madness and greed associated with the NCAA's tournament that is now in full swing. To get an overall sense of "what's going on," see the related stories.7-11

It is indeed troubling to think that the vision of our athletics-minded president has been colored by a combination of his love of the game, NCAA PR, and the excitement of this manifestation of the American public's sports’ mania. Apparently he does not seem to realize that the higher a team's ranking for the NCAA's March Madness Basketball Tournament, the more likely it is that team members were recruited and kept eligible by corruption—egregious, secretive cheating of one sort or another. Like cream, the very best cheaters rise to the top. The same applies to team rankings for BCS football bowl games.

Concluding Remarks – Notwithstanding the Open Letter to the President, many reform-minded academics are left to wonder if President Obama would be open to learning the brutal truth about the widespread, greed-driven corruption in the NCAA's college sports entertainment businesses—even though the corruption correlates closely with the root cause of many of the problems he is confronting in other sectors of the business community

Perhaps it will be up to Education Secretary Duncan to reveal the truth to the president—counseling him by saying: If America is going to continue to maintain a position of leadership on the 21st century's world stage, then it not only needs to invest in its institutions of higher education to ensure our nation's continued competitiveness and security, but it also needs to get its educational priorities right—restoring academics-over-athletics primacy to higher education.

Frank G. Splitt is a member of The Drake Group, a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University, and a vice president emeritus of Nortel Networks.

IMPORTANT LINKS

Otto, Kadence and Frank G. Splitt (on behalf of The Drake Group), “Open Letter to the President and His Administration,” Press Release, March 18, 2009.

Lederman, Doug, "Florida State's Unpleasant Vacation," InsideHigherEd.com, March 18, 2009.

Katz, Andy, "Presidential pick 'em at the White House," ESPN.com, March 18, 2009,

Sherman, Elizabeth, "An Open Secret," The Washington Post, March 17, 2009,

Jackson, Derrick Z., “Foul play on black athletes' graduation rates” The Boston Globe, March 17, 2009.

The Editors, "March Money Madness," The New York Times, March 18, 2009. (Includes commentary by Murray Sperber, Andrew Zimbalist, William C. Dowling, and others.)

Vedder, Richard and Denhart, Matthew, "The Real March Madness," The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2009.