Friday, December 18, 2009

Lowering the Bar

The University of Tennessee is being investigated by the NCAA for possible recruiting violations that include using "hostesses"; co-eds who, allegedly, have gone to the high school games of prized football recruits to help lure them to the University. While the NCAA appears to be looking into whether this practice violates NCAA recruiting regulations, there are other glaring issues ripe for discussion: Is it ethical for the University to use some of its own female students as objects in the race to land prize recruits? Should institutions of higher education, whose primary missions are indeed educational, utilize tactics that are rooted in sexism and the objectification of women?

College coaches at all levels are masters of looking for -- and sometimes finding -- the recruiting edge. Using attractive female students to entice (straight) male athletes to choose a particular institution is not a new concept and, given how we market professional football today, not a particularly innovative one. Whether it is effective or not is certainly up for debate. Someone would have to do a study that evaluates all of the variables that impact why a particular student-athlete chooses a particular school and then the degree to which that athlete contributes to the team's success. Obviously, no one is going to do that and I don't think anyone is really interested in whether or not it is an effective recruiting tactic. What is obvious is that a lot of folks involved in this type of recruiting, believe it is effective and are not deterred by any possible ethical objectives anyone may have. NCAA regulations have a far better shot at ending such a practice than a sudden and widespread revelation by coaches, administrators, and the "hostesses" themselves that the practice is somehow "wrong."

Some comments to the article in the New York Times about the NCAA investigation reflect what I think some people's initial reaction is: that it's not surprising, nor a big deal, and that it's a cold, hard, fact that some men will pick their college based on their perception of the attractiveness of the women who attend it. It's one thing to put an act into context. It is wholly another thing to rationalize a decision or action that is based on the exploitation of an entire gender. Should institutions of higher education be expected to raise the bar in all aspects of their institution? Or are some of these Division I athletic departments so removed from the institution's mission that it is pointless to try and make that argument?

I don't think it's too much of an expectation for universities and colleges to raise the moral bar here and to stop the use of such recruiting practices. If they don't, we run the risk of the bar getting lower and lower and it's hard to know where that could end. Using women (and an increasing number of men as well) as sexual objects to sell products is hardly uncommon in our country. We do it to sell sport, aftershave and beer. But is it unreasonable to hope that our institutions of higher learning could be a haven from that culture? That their recruiting practices would prepare prospective student-athletes in their selection of a college rather than a six pack?

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