Apologies for the long delay. I’ve been packing and moving. It’s a huge task in the best of times and I was leaving one country for another, making it even harder. Suffice it to say I had little time for writing. I’ve now settled in to my (temporary) lodgings and shall (hopefully) be commencing upon regular posts again.
Today I return to one of my favourite pastimes — American football. The regular season for the NFL is less than a month away, which means training camps are underway and games are getting played (and televised). It also means the return of HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ series, which follows one of the 32 NFL teams for a few weeks chronicling training camp. It’s like a football version of ‘Big Brother’ I would say.
This year the show follows the Los Angeles Rams. The team was based in LA for decades before leaving for St Louis in the mid-1990s, returning just this year. When I was growing up I remember actually going to see the team play in LA on at least one occasion. The first episode aired this past Tuesday, and will air each Tuesday for six weeks. The episode captures the excitement of having a professional football team back in LA after more than two decades without having one. Fans of the team were happy to have them return after such a long absence.
I’m intrigued with the show for multiple reasons. I love football so it’s interesting to see a behind-the-scenes view of it. As I mentioned earlier, I remember the team from my childhood, so having them back in southern California brings back memories — even if I’m no longer in southern California. The team is practicing at the University of California, Irvine campus, which is where I studied as an undergraduate.
The first thing that struck me about the show this year was how little of campus I recognised (or perhaps remembered). When I was attending I don’t recall there being a football field at all. It turns out there’s not, just a re-purposed section of a facility called Crawford Field. Some of the other buildings they show either weren’t there when I was or have changed dramatically since I left. The student centre, for example, was greatly expanded soon after I graduated. When I do recognise a building or section of campus I get a small tingle of excitement — for no other reason than I find it amusing, really.
The second thing that struck me is that UCI is in Orange County, which is not Los Angeles. While UC, Irvine is part of the University of California system of schools, it’s not even the closes campus to Los Angeles. That honour, of course, falls to the University of California, Los Angeles, better known as UCLA. The two campuses are roughly 50 miles distant from each other.
However, it’s common both in sports and television to classify Orange County as part of the greater Los Angeles area. In baseball, the Angels are known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They’re two totally different places, yet get subsumed into the LA region. I find it a bit annoying since the distances involved are often very large and the places aren’t necessarily near each other despite what is shown on the screen. The first episode of the series showed players lifting weights at a place called Muscle Beach, and going swimming in Huntington Beach. Muscle Beach is in Santa Monica, near UCLA; Huntington Beach is in Orange County near UCI. If you didn’t know southern California geography, however, you might think they were relatively close (though, obviously, ‘relatively’ is, ironically, a relative term). It’s a minor point, for sure, but somewhat ties into my next issue regarding knowledge.
The Rams used their position as the first team to pick a player in the annual NFL Draft to chose a quarterback named Jared Goff, who played at another UC school, Berkeley, known in sporting circles as Cal. Berkeley, like the other schools in the UC system, is known for its academic rigour and national prestige. It’s a hard school to get in to, usually requiring good grades, some sort of community service and high test scores. The US News and World Report Education section ranks Berkeley as the 20th best school in the US; whereas Times Higher Education ranks it as 13th in the world; the Academic Rankings of World Universities said it was number 3 in the world; and Forbes gave it the number 6 in public universities. No matter who is doing the surveying, it’s a good school.
It surprised me, then, that Goff didn’t know the directions in which the sun rose and set. At least one other new player didn’t know either, thinking the sun rose in the west. Now, I can understand not knowing which way is west or east if you can’t see the sun. Modern technology has made needing to know directions like that almost obsolete. But this simple tidbit of knowledge that I would expect primary school children to know? How can a man who attended one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world not know this simple fact? How could he have passed any basic science class without knowing that, let alone enough of them to attend university?
There’s obviously a huge flaw in the system. Somewhere along the way his talent as an athlete began to overshadow his academics. I don’t know if his teachers let him slide a little due to his talent, or he was sick the day the rest of the class learned about simple physics like that, or some other reason. But it’s an indication that, for some, a premium is given to their non-academic talents. Football, in particular, is big money for universities. There are plenty of players who get partial or full scholarships to attend a particular university to play football. Those same scholarships apply to other sports, but often to a lesser degree. Yes, there are even some ‘full ride’ academic scholarships at many universities, but these are decidedly few and far between. Obviously it’s hard to get any of those ‘full ride’ scholarships that pays for university; it’s hard to get even partial scholarships. The competition is intense, in part because tuition is so high now.
But should a student’s athletic prowess outweigh their academic needs? Should some students, who obviously train very hard at what they do, be given preference over others? Would the system be better served if attending university were free for students, as it is in many Scandinavian countries (and was proposed by at least former American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton)? The system is obviously broken. Football players highlight just one aspect of the flaws (and I won’t even start on the NCAA). Something needs to change.