- The Athletic Trap: How College Sports Corrupted the Academy by Howard L. Nixon
Sport sociologist Howard Nixon from Towson State University has been involved with intercollegiate athletics in various capacities for over forty years. As athlete, researcher, teacher, and faculty representative Nixon has witnessed the growth and development of intercollegiate athletics into a major institution on campus.
From the subtitle of his current work it is clear that he does not regard this as a benign development. The corruption of the academy is clear, and in this compact volume Nixon lays out the pernicious structure of the commercial aspects of intercollegiate athletics. He also provides a cautionary tale to any and all university presidents who find they are serving as the tail of the athletic dog.
Nixon begins by dividing intercollegiate athletics into two types: the commercial model and the collegiate model. Within the former are the high revenue, high visibility sports of football and basketball. Under the collegiate model are the non-revenue sports. The former is the home of the athlete student, and latter is the home of the student athlete. The conduct, purposes, and power of the two realms are light years apart, and their relationship with the academic mission of the university reflects those differences.
The commercial model is primarily an entertainment model, and its purposes are to bring cash and glory to the college or university that pursues the model. The more devoted a university is to the model, the less control a president can expect to have over the athletic program, including the athletic director and the coaches of the major sports. Other influences and controlling forces are found off campus with television executives, corporate sponsors, major donors, boosters, and activist alumni. In the end university presidents find themselves, either willingly or unwillingly, caught in “The Athletic Trap.” [End Page 141]
From this beginning Nixon proceeds to a description of the inner structure of the Athletic Trap utilizing a concept he calls the “Intercollegiate Golden Triangle.” He describes it as “a social network of relationships linking universities, their athletic programs, and the governing bodies of college sports to rich and powerful media corporations and such other private businesses as corporate sponsors and merchandisers” (p. 23).
What follows over the next 150 pages is a detailed examination of the inner workings of the commercial model with multiple examples of the Athletic Trap, none of which will be any great surprise to those familiar with intercollegiate athletics. Nixon also looks at the collegiate model and its future on campus. Finally, as with many books in this genre, Nixon offers a number of suggestions for reform.
Was there really a need for yet another examination of the corrupting influence of intercollegiate athletics? Probably not. On the other hand Nixon does provide an interesting analytical framework for a discussion of the problems and particularly the trap within which university presidents must operate. He lays out the issues and examples in a compact form making this a good point for opening an informed discussion of intercollegiate athletics.
Some will find Nixon’s recommendations for reform interesting and perhaps even helpful. His separation of the commercial model and collegiate model will find considerable support. Unfortunately, that support is not likely to be found within the Golden Triangle where most of the power lies.
Reforms have been flowing through the intercollegiate athletic system since the early twentieth century, and here it is the early twenty-first century and most of same problems persist. Reform comforts the reformers, but radical change would seem more likely to be effective.
It seems to me that Nixon’s remedies depend very heavily on the university president, a figure who more often than not is a collaborative and enabling agent for the forces within the Golden Triangle. In too many cases when presidents have tried to take control of athletic programs and alter the balance of power within, the result has been the loss of the presidency.