Full disclosure: I love football.
During the last few weeks, college football teams have been playing their traditional rivalry games, matchups that fire the passions of alumni more than any other contests, and I am caught up in the fervor as well. This week is the Army-Navy game, pitting two colleges that were genuine football powerhouses years ago. These days, they rarely appear in the ratings, if ever.
Like most schools, the service academies try to recruit students who are good football players, but unlike most colleges, the players have to be able to do many other things, including college schoolwork. While not dead, it is sad to say that at most colleges the old notion of the scholar-athlete is moribund.
The primacy of athletic programs at institutions of higher learning has arrived after a prolonged period of gestation and can be traced to the period after World War II. Worried about the corrosive effect that milions of unemployed veterans would have on the struggling postwar economy, we passed the GI Bill, which put a huge number of returning servicemen into higher education and fueled the most spectacular economic expansion in American history.
More students yielded more alumni with more money. The money begat big contributions to athletic programs, which coincided with the rise of televised sports---also a creature of a robust economy---and the huge capital available to pay top-quality athletes. The production of professional athletes became an important function of colleges, as expensive as any academic program, and at institutions with nationally-ranked teams, sports evolved into a major source of cash flow.
It is difficult for many alumni to avoid catching the fever of big-time college sports. When my alma mater, Rutgers, embarked on a program to improve its football team, it attracted a startling amount of money from its graduates, who funded the latest in sophisticated and expensive training equipment, a vastly enlarged stadium and other trappings of athletic rather than intellectual prowess. The football team is surely much better than it was when I was a student there, but one wonders if Rutgers University is a commensurately better institution of higher education.
From time to time, the service academies have been the sources for the occasional professional athlete---David Robinson and Roger Staubach come to mind---but West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy are generally not in the big-time sports business. Still, these colleges are not immune to the virus, and recent alumni contributions have made possible magnificent new facilities at places whose function is really education.
Donors have a right to decide how that donation is used. It is their money, and they usually have the authority to direct that it be spent for serious academic educational purposes or not, if that's what they wish. But more than 300 million of us, most of whom do not have the money to make a difference, have a stake in the quality of the product that comes from our educational system, and one would hope that the patriotism of the donors would trump the superficial pride of athletic victory.