Henry Giroux on Penn State, College Athletics, and Capitalism: Solidarity Is “Impossible When Sports Are Driven by Market Values“

Although the circumstances that occasioned it were troubling, it was an honor to finally get to speak with Henry A, Giroux, who currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. A prolific author on the intersections of capitalism and education, he was named as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period in Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present as part of Routledge’s Key Guides Publication Series. He has published numerous books and articles and his most recent books include: Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Paradigm 2010), Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Peter Lang 2011); On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011); Education and the Crisis of Public Values (Peter Lang), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability(Paradigm 2012), and Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012). His forthcoming book is Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm in press). His website can be found at www.henryagiroux.com. [Full disclosure: Henry Giroux is a member of Truthout’s board of directors.]

Writing in an op-ed for Truthout on the Penn State scandal and the horrible sex crimes Jerry Sandusky perpetrated against innocent boys, facilitated by Joe Paterno and the Penn State athletic department, Giroux placed the cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes in a larger socioeconomic context:

Let’s be clear, what is on trial here is not simply those who colluded to protect the reputation of a storied football program and the reputation of Penn State University, but a society governed by market-driven values, a survival of the fittest ethic, and an unregulated drive for profit-making regardless of the human and social costs. This is an ethic that now views many children and young people as disposable, refusing to acknowledge its responsibility to future generations while creating conditions in which the pain and suffering of young people simply disappears. As a number of recent banking scandals reveal, big money and the institutions it creates now engage in massive criminal behaviour and corruption, but the individuals who head these corporations extending from JPMorgan Bank to Barclay’s are rarely prosecuted. The message is clear. Crime pays for the rich and powerful.

I wanted to get a better grip on what Giroux was saying, so I contacted him with a few questions, which appear with their answers below:

politicalcontext.org: You wrote that there is a double standard when it comes to “prosecuting the rich and powerful who engage in a bottomless pit of corruption and moral responsibility.” To what extent is this layer even more impenetrable when it comes to the celebrities in the world of intercollegiate athletics? In my experience, successful coaches and ADs enjoy a huge amount of freedom from public and legal scrutiny. Has that also been your observational experience?

Henry Giroux: I think you are right in that when big money merges with big sports matters of power and policy become less accountable, especially given the iconic status that celebrity coaches have in the United States in defining the mission of higher education and the role that sports play in such a task. Let’s face it, coaches are now tainted by the corruption created by a mindless celebrity culture in which self-interest, narcissism, and an indifference to public values play such a powerful role. Turning coaches into godlike figures, building monuments in their name, is a testimony to how far the mission of the university has strayed from its critical, public, and democratic mission. Treating coaches as gods and looking to them for providing a brand name for colleges, not to mention lucrative profits, is antithetical to what higher education should be all about. Universities are crucial public spheres that play a formative role in shaping informed, critical, and knowledgeable citizens. They should not be transformed into entertainment centers, just as coaches should not be elevated to the status of iconic, god like figures.

PC: From the perspective of political economy, what is the role of high-profile intercollegiate athletic programs? Is it a kind of “bread and circuses” for higher education, or is there some other social role being served?

HG: At a time when higher education is being defunded and reduced to adjuncts of corporate power, big sports empires not only provide much needed revenue, they also legitimate governing structures that are primarily responsive responsible to raking in profits. High profile intercollegiate programs legitimate business oriented governing structures because they consolidate power through the merging of big money and big sports. This legimates a neoliberal mode of governing that turns college presidents into CEOs, students into customers, education into a mode of consumption, and faculty into spirited entrepreneurs–all in all a shameful and corrupting view of the university. Moreover, I think that big sports empires on college campuses not only indulge in the deification of coaches who wield a pernicious influence on the governing of the university, it also creates conditions in which students view college as a place to be entertained rather than be educated, resulting in a type of collegial experience that results in a degrading of the intellectual mission of the university.

PC: Are there any examples of high-profile intercollegiate athletics programs that “get it right?” Socially responsible or otherwise laudable programs?

HG: I am sure that given the nature and structure of power these programs have, it is almost impossible to get it right. Some are simply less damaging than others. The real issue is whether there is a place for big sports in higher education. The basic message these programs offer is that sports is what largely defines the college experience for many students and for working class kids the insidious message is that only sports can get them into college. According to the NCAA, a top college football player requires at least 43 hours a week. This type of training devalues education and sends the wrong message to students, to alumni, and to the public regarding the purpose of education. Education is not a business, not an athletic training center, nor should it should be a recruiting tool for professional sports. Moreover, it fosters a hyper-masculine culture that is as dangerous as it can be violent. Masculine privilege rules in these programs and the consequences is often frightening when it comes to the culture of silence that shapes governing structures, sexual violence, and the production of unadulterated illiteracy among too many students.

PC: In a socially and economically just world, what role would intercollegiate athletics play, if any? Is there a pedagogically sound and just role for athletics in education?

HG: Sports can be an important way to foster healthy values regarding team work, solidarity, and trust, while promoting outlets for fun and enjoyment. But this is impossible when sports are driven by market values, turned into money making machines, and define the basic mission of the university. The key here is to take the money out of sports and return it to it amateur status. It is crucial to take corporate money out of college sports, get rid of the big donors, and find other ways to make sports integral to the university without turning it into a tsunami of corruption, power, and masculine privilege.

PC: Any good literature you might suggest to our readers on the role of athletics in capitalism, or even intercollegiate athletics in particular? What should our readers read more of to understand the phenomenon you address?

HG: There is a long tradition of books dealing with sports and capitalism. Some of the more important books would include: Murray Sperber, Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education; Allen Sack, Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete’s Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism; Toby Miller, Sportsex; Michael Silk, Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture; Sport, Joshua Newman and Michael Giardina, Spectacle, and NASCAR Nation: Consumption and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism. I would also suggest my books, Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism as a primer on market driven fundamentalism and its pernicious effects on American society and Take Back Higher Education (co authored with Susan Searls Giroux) as a primer on the changing mission of the university.

NOTE: Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave, 2009); Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (Paradigm, 2010); Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Paradigm, 2010); The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (co-authored with Grace Pollock, Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Peter Lang, 2011); Henry Giroux on Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011). His newest books: Education and the Crisis of Public Values (Peter Lang) and Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm Publishers) will be published in 2012). Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors. His website is www.henryagiroux.com.