Tis indeed the season to be jolly for American sports lovers for this feast of bowls signals more diversions and enthusiasms to come — the pro football playoffs and Super Bowl, March Madness, the eternal hope derived from spring baseball training. The ancient Romans used gladiators fighting to the death and lions munching on Christians to keep the public’s minds and attention off what equivalents to the General Assembly and Washington were doing; the modern Romans and their neighbors around the nation get to focus on whatever is on the nearest 80-inch, high-definition Circus Maximus or 50-inch Colosseum screens.
That’s said simply to remind all that man (and woman) does not live by sporting contests alone — unless they are bookies, of course — the writer plans to be among the watching multitudes a number of times in coming days.
However, a word of caution for the many Alabama fans in these parts who, with good reason, believe the No. 2-rated Tide should easily overcome the No. 1 Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. When a miracle is called for, God really does seem to be on Notre Dame’s side. The writer was in the stands at Norman, Okla., on Saturday, Nov. 16, 1957, when the Irish came in an 18-point underdog to the University of Oklahoma Sooners and their 47-game winning streak. OU, which had not failed to score a point for 120 straight games, lost 7-0. Sooner fans to this day remain convinced that Notre Dame had an invisible 12th player on the field.
THERE IS no question that sports and their many great rivalries that turn into traditions (Notre Dame beat my alma mater again this year in Norman) can be riveting. Thus it would be wonderful indeed, as recently proposed by Bill Peterson, the athletic director of Shorter University, if his Hawks and the Berry College Vikings could somehow resume their long-exciting crosstown rivalry. Indeed, when Shorter departed the NAIA for NCAA Division II, this space mourned that it signaled “the end” to this near-legendary and mostly friendly competition.
However, now that Berry has also left the NAIA for the NCAA, although Division III, and has opted to start football, which it did not have before, that does not mean a one-week fall sports festival in which the two schools — similar in so many ways (hometown, private, Christian, liberal arts, student bodies of similar size with both mainly resident on campus) — can compete in the envisioned football, soccer, volleyball and cross country on a level playing field.
The notion of doing it to raise funds for a local charity is excellent, of course, with this space once having made the same suggestion when basketball was still the main sport at both schools. Still, this is no more likely to “garner ample attention throughout the entire state of Georgia and even nationally” or cause a major local economic impact as Shorter appears to believe than would reviving the old Darlington vs. Rome gridiron battles of many years ago. Tigers vs. Wolves would also be very unfair under modern circumstances, as Berry was quick to note regarding the Shorter proposal while expressing upset at not having been asked before the festival idea was thrown out.
FRANKLY, THIS play diagram on a chalkboard made it look as though Berry was a bunch of scaredy-cats for turning the idea down, which it did with the proviso of “We would be happy to consider the proposal if — in the future — Shorter choose to move to Division III.” That’s because Division III schools offer zero athletic scholarships as they share the view that going to college is about academics and not athletics. They support team sports for school unity and pride plus a bit of the notion that being housed in strong bodies helps strong minds last longer. However, Division III is basically a variation upon intramural sports at bigger schools where fraternities or dorms play games against each other.
Shorter, on the other hand, does both recruit students for athletic prowess and “pays” the best they find with tuition, etc. scholarships. As far as level playing field is concerned, the proposal is somewhat like having the Rome High baseball team play annually against the Rome Braves. Exhibition game for charity and pure fun, maybe. Serious competition that counts in record books … no way.
Yes, Berry in its first season (2013) does plan to play Mercer University, a startup Division I program. Both would basically be fielding freshmen. Shorter in its first Division II season in 2010 did the same (using upperclassmen from a previously existing NAIA football program) with Division I startup Georgia State ... and lost, 41-7, in the first game ever played by the Panthers. In the final GSU game of that season, that newly born team played Alabama and lost 63-7. Oh what fun that must have been ... and the national attention drawn could hardly have been considered positive.
However, there is a field of competition wide open to exploitation by Shorter and Berry on which their teamwork could set up a national event in Rome of major proportions although, to be honest about it, unlikely to fill even a small stadium like Barron. There is an area of friendly battle between institutions of higher learning that is almost entirely missing.
Universities/colleges are about academics, not athletics. Seriously. Not kidding. They are about honing brains, not toning muscles.
SO, WHY NOT launch — in classifications according to size of student body — league competition and “bowl games” regarding knowledge attained? There are actually such among some high schools nationally, with rules and regulations and referees and everything. However, almost nothing of this sort exists currently at the higher education level. About the only such known arena involves debate teams, a rather limited and narrow sort of “game” as though football were limited to competition between field-goal kickers.
Now, a competition between Shorter, Berry and similar schools (there would have to be private and public divisions, one suspects) to see who deserves bragging rights for ability to put knowledge into young heads could get quite spirited and even of great interest — well, at least to the parents footing the bills. As all schools pretty much offer academic scholarships already, a level playing field seems assured.
Each team might comprise a senior, junior, sophomore and freshman trying to catch general knowledge questions across the wide range of coursework — natural sciences, history, literature and so forth. It probably would require a different league entirely to deal with math, engineering and stuff of that nature. And the “super bowl” played between the teams with the most victories probably should be a battle regarding best knowledge of current events. After all, the best-muscled minds are supposed to help change the world.
There is even some precedent of spectator interest being involved although certainly not to the same degree as football. Back in the 1940s and ’50s a long-running popular show on national radio and TV was the “Quiz Kids” — grade-schoolers that seemed to know more than even Wikipedia does today.
Even now, very much based on the same underlying concept except with financial reward thrown in, there are always “brain game” shows pulling in good audiences, with “Jeopardy” around since 1964.
WATCHING FOOTBALL and other collegiate athletic contests is enjoyable — with or without beer and hot wings. But, turning serious for just a moment, where are the national AP or professor/coach rankings on the schools that do the best job of educating with supporting proof of the young people made smartest winning on a level competitive playing field?
No, it wouldn’t be more fun than what diverts the attention of so many of us today. But wouldn’t it be more important?
Besides, even the ancient Romans might well have cheered if, from time to time, it was the Christians who ate the lions.