Bad sports?

When we first moved to Omaha, Nebraska some years ago, and settled into our new house, it was a Friday. By Saturday noon, we had made an initial stab at organizing a few essential boxes, and wanted to relieve the “cabin fever” by taking a drive to familiarize ourselves with our new surroundings.

On this July afternoon, we drove downtown, barely encountering cars on the road. It was surreal, almost like a ghost town, and we were beginning to wonder whether there were actually people in the city–or whether this was just a mirage, made up of only houses and buildings.

Well, yes–Omaha does have many inhabitants. So where were they this sunny July afternoon? They were all either attending the “Big Red” University of Nebraska Cornhuskers college (American) football game in Lincoln, Nebraska (50 miles away)–or they were watching it on television. Given that there are no professional football teams in Nebraska, there is a great deal of local pride in the “Cornhuskers”. Indeed, so much so, that (at least according to the scientist played by Harrison Ford in “Extraordinary Measures“) the coach of this team is the highest paid employee of the University of Nebraska (estimated at 2.1 million dollars a year). That apparently includes the President of the University, the Chancellor of the College of Medicine and the various Deans and other high ranking academics.

It is true that I spent my youth/adolescence mostly in Winnipeg, Canada (home of the mosquitoes and snow). However, all of my undergraduate and graduate studies were at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To the very best of my knowledge, there were NO sports teams at the university. Neither the most popular sport (European) football (=soccer in the US), nor the highly popular basketball. The reason? Studies were extremely intensive. Who could possibly have time to even watch sports, not to mention actually play and train. Although my experience with European universities is very limited, I suspect that organized sports (especially those that are nationally televised and regarded more seriously than the studies themselves) are not major components of the academic systems. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Is a huge investment in sports justified? Does this come at the expense of scientists, historians and academics, as well as scholarships and fellowships for students? Those in favor of college sports maintain that the interest and revenues generated by the sports programs by far outweigh the financial costs. In other words, sports are more profitable than science, for example–and well, colleges today have “accountability”. Business is business. But what about academics? Is that not the first priority of an institute of higher learning?

I myself am not biased against sports and athletics. During my youth, I loved to play (European) football, basketball, ice hockey, tennis, volleyball and more. I even managed to train and run a couple marathons before my knees “went south”. Perhaps because of that. Years later, when I found an unbelievably brilliant physiotherapist who helped me through my painful knee troubles, I moaned about not being able to play sports and stay healthy. I recall the shock that I had when he looked at me and said, “Who says playing sports keeps you healthy? Playing sports ruins your body.”

I thought about that statement a lot. Especially when reading that Olympic swimmers typically have about 8-10 shoulder operations by the time they are 30 years of age, and that the average professional golfer also undergoes a similar number of shoulder and sometimes knee operations. Professional basketball players continually have knee operations, and I have read about many who receive routine cortisone shots for back and shoulder pain. There is no need to discuss wrestling and certainly not boxing, if one even deems it a “sport”. I could go on and on–any sport with repetitive motion (all sports, basically) when played at a “professional” level will lead to injuries. Just take me as an example–a professional computer user–and I have been suffering this past month from severe neck/shoulder arm pain (what can I do, grants and papers are due…). So much so, that I have actually splurged and purchased voice recognition software to try dictation. So don’t laugh if my upcoming blogs come out unreadable!

But I digress, and digression is painful for me right now… So my real question is what is it with our “love of sport”–a love that survives even in the face of pain and injury? Is the sport the ultimate (legal) display of domination? The simulation of war, as aptly told in John Knowles great novel “A Separate Peace“? Now, I can already feel Henry going into offensive mode over this next statement–but is sport an evolutionary custom to replace our caveman-like hunter-warrior desires (yes–gender purposefully male here, and not ‘caveperson’)? Is scoring a goal in football equivalent to male penetration and dominance?

Before I exacerbate my shoulder problems further, and alienate Henry, I will sign off…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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21 Responses to Bad sports?

  1. chall says:

    I didn’t have much sports teams at the Swedish uni where I went either…. It was more of a “either a sports person or a grad student” – you couldn’t be both. There were some sports teams of course, rowing and shooting for example, but mainly those sports were extra-curriculm an had no similarities to the US uni/college teams.

    As for sports, I love watching hockey and american football (I have adapted since where I currently live is not hockey country)… and that would indicate to me that there is something to do with strenght/force* as well as skill and tactics… and if I catch some rugby (UK/France style) I’m not going to not watch 🙂

    [*I can see where this is going ^^]

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    That’s the difference. It seems that many “students” here in the US are at university primarily…to play sports. Not learn to teach physical education, but to entertain audiences by playing hockey, American football, baseball, basketball, etc. It’s not an “extra-curricular activity” but a primary occupation. Almost like the way the former Soviet Union CCCP hockey team was made up of “amateurs” whose only occupation was to play hockey–although they were technically in the military.

    My feeling is that Swedes typically have a very healthy outlook on sports, and are heavily into activity (as opposed to the pro-sports/watching culture here).

    • chall says:

      Steve> I had the same feeling [of the Swedes and sport] and then I went home and realised that it might have been a generational thingy… 😉

      Joke aside, I think in general it is easier to “practice” sports if you have access to ‘public’/’non-private arenas/ice rinks/running tracks throught the forest etc… and that was the fact when at least I grew up. Made it less of a “money/hassle” thing, apart from hockey/golf/horsebackriding/tennis which were the ‘sports’ which had a certain ‘financial’* aspect to them.

      That said, I don’t think we/Sweden have that many people in the elite of sports… as you can find where you have a lot of college/educational sports teams…

      (*cross country skiing, football i.e. soccer, running etc … not as much.)

  3. Mike says:

    I’ve heard an argument that the sports’ scholarship system in North America actually allows many people to attend university that otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Of course, they’re there to do sports first and second, and probably third. But somewhere down the line, they do get access to further education, which could come in useful when the injuries start kicking in.

    In the UK, most academic universities do have sports clubs. Those for generally popular sports (football, rugby) are composed of social athletes (they’re there for the drinking), as students who are actually good at their sport will probably play as an amateur for a local non-uni side at a higher standard. This was certainly true of rugby in Glasgow Uni. Minority sports clubs at the uni (e.g., rowing) do have serious athletes in them, as they’re often the only local access to facilities for that sport.

    There are other Uni’s in the UK that are better known for their sports programmes than other academic fields though.

    • chall says:

      I’ve heard the same thing as you Mike, in regards to the sports scholarships. And that might be one important factor when tuition fees are high and access to college/uni isn’t as easy/open? as in other countries? not to mention that the school spirit and “team spirit” seems to be enormous at US unis (looking at my friends and the franchise with all the things you can buy to ‘support your school’).

  4. What Mike said. My younger brother was a fairly serious (field) hockey player in his student days, but played for a local club team that boasted a couple of internationals. The University hockey team he played for for half a semester was primarily about drinking yourself unconscious.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I read a very interesting article about a week ago – sadly I can no longer remember where it was, except it was through a Facebook link – decrying the whole US higher education system. One of the wrongs was the whole business of US college sports, in which the coach got paid more than the academics. On the evolutionary role of sport I have no opinion whatsoever.

  6. Sport’s a tribal thing, and it is AWESOME! 🙂

    British universities do have sports teams, but they’re seen as much more of a hobby. I remember that our campus newspaper in Newcastle would report the various teams’ scores at the back, and they might merit an article if they made it to the final stages of a tournament, but for the most part no-one other than the team, their best friends and their partners ever went to the actual games. And this was in a football crazy city – but no-one cares about college sports, it’s all about the pro leagues!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Tribal is right! Wasn’t it a hockey player from Vancouver who smashed a stick over the neck of another player leaving him paralyzed a few years ago?

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Not quite – he punched him from behind, the punched player’s team-mates jumped on the puncher’s back, and the whole pile went down together. The other player broke his neck either from the punch or from being at the bottom of the pile of scrapping players, but was not paralysed. It was an extremely ugly incident.

        Luckily, it’s perfectly possible to be tribal about your sport without attempting to kill one another..

        • Steve Caplan says:

          I once heard someone attempting to describe the difference between European and American football:

          American football is a nihilistic and dangerous game played by gentlemen.

          European (sorry, also S. American, African and the rest of the world too!) football is a gentlemen’s game played by nihilistic and dangerous animals…

  7. KristiV says:

    @ cromercrox – At a time when UT system faculty are facing furloughs and other cost-cutting measures, we have to suffer this insult – a football coach that makes US$5 million, and his offensive and defensive coordinators who make over US$600K each per year. I actually like watching college football on occasion (though I prefer watching collegiate volleyball, soccer, and track and field events), but those ridiculous salaries chap my hide.

    @ Steve – I’m sure your statements about injuries in Olympic swimmers and pro golfers are correct, but how many more thousands of people enjoy those sports, at less intense levels, throughout their lifespans, and are essentially injury-free? I don’t play golf, but I swam competitively from about age 9, throughout high school, as did two of my cousins; I still swim 1.25 to 2.5 miles each week. One of the cousins continued to swim competitively throughout his university years. I don’t think any of us had a serious injury from swimming, and certainly none of us required surgery (I realize this is anecdata). Both sides of my family trend towards Númenórean longevity, and so I intend to swim well into my 80s and 90s. I just think swimming is a very poor example for “playing sports ruins your body.” I really don’t want to develop type 2 diabetes, and I certainly don’t want to be in a position to require bypass surgery or a stent, or to drop dead of a heart attack … so I’ll stick with the swimming, cycling, hiking, gym workouts, and horseback riding, and take my chances with the injuries. Obesity is a huge (pun intended) problem in this city, and I wish more people would take advantage of the good weather here and exercise a bit.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    So it seems that indeed the professional style uni-sports appear to be uniquely American.

    @KristiV- I do agree with you that at amateur levels, sports are healthy an fun. It’s at t he professional levels where athletes are pushing the physical limits too far that the injuries and surgeries are all too common. Ever heard of a gymnast who didn’t suffer from injuries? But I wholly agree that us non-pros need to stay active.
    As for 5 million for a football coach- that’s pure contempt for academics…

  9. cromercrox says:

    I played Scrabble for Cambridge University. I remember playing the town’s Scrabble Club. I put down ADDAX, got challenged, and won. Ah, memories.

  10. MGG says:

    How is the voice recognition software working for you?

  11. MGG says:

    Can’t wait for the next post.

  12. Of course Oxbridge types just play each other at sport and don’t have to worry if they’re not very good, because they’re comparable and therefore they can have intense competitions while still being very amateur. (Strange reminiscence that the first cricket match I went to see at Lords was the ‘Varsity match’ when I was about 12, and taken by a non-cricket playing non-Oxbridge father).

    I’m intrigued the Nebraska football team are called ‘Big Red’ – so were the Cornell team as I recall (and of course the Ivy League are like Oxbridge, can play each other badly without having huge numbers of sports scholarships). Distinctly remember raucous cries of ‘go Big Red’ during one of the few football matches I went do during 4 years there as a postdoc.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Everything is “Red” in Nebraska. In fact, I’m told (and can see) that there is a disproportionate amount of red cars on the streets. Someone even told me that red colored cars are more expensive…

  13. Back in the day (i.e. in the early 70s) at my private secondary/high school we used to get a half-day off school when Oxford played Cambridge at rugby. Bizarre.

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