Offense wins games,
but defense wins championships.”
Louisiana is a football state. We’re not just fans of the game; we embody every aspect of the culture. Football comprises much of our idea of value. For instance, a friend of mine was talking to a man who said, “Tulane’s not much of a university.”
Surprised, my friend asked why he said that. He replied, “They don’t have a good football team.”
Similarly, the Academic VP for the local university was told some years back – by someone who hobnobbed with the highest levels of state government – in perfect seriousness, “If you play your cards right, they just might make you head football coach.”
Football coaches here have often been elected to state office. They are occasionally enthusiastically endorsed to be university presidents and have, on occasion, gotten the job. And frequently in the state, school principals, district and state superintendents are chosen from the high school coaching ranks.
With that fanaticism, politicians often take the football mentality into public policy. Sports memorabilia are prominent in the offices of many elected officials. And sports metaphors are fixtures in politics: carrying the ball, dropping the ball, spiking the ball, running an end-around, going for a slam-dunk, putting it out of the park, running a full-court press, taking the gloves off. You get the picture.
The problem is, when translated into the political arena the football mentality, ‘Defense wins championships’ becomes toxic. The political version becomes, ‘If I can stop you, I don’t have to generate progress.’ Look at the political campaigns that focus on slung mud and personal attacks. Look at the gridlock in national, state and local politics.
Then think about the adversarial culture that exists in the bureaucracies of most governmental services.
I previously laid out the ideas of win-win and win-lose. The problem with football is that it is always win-lose: at the end of every football season, the number of W’s will exactly equal the number of L’s.
Except that it’s worse than that. I also noted that progress is a new idea, and that for much of history, innovation was rare. Success in ancient times typically came down to the largest army, which was generally a product of the largest population and the largest economy. In those instances, defense was a successful strategy. But today, as innovation accelerates size is a poor predictor of progress.1)China and India are each several times larger than the USA; and the next modernized democracy at #10 on the list, is Japan, which is smaller than Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. (Russia comes in at #9, but I do not yet consider them to be a fully modernized democracy.) And I previously point out that innovation has become critical for competitiveness.
So while we are fighting internally among ourselves, working to stop the current opponents, other competitors are moving forward.
Let me give two related examples from Louisiana. The public universities here have long pursued the football mentality on and off the field, often expending more energy in holding each other back than in moving their own campuses forward.
Hold that line.
With that, the governor of Louisiana is probably the most powerful such official in the nation, and historically used his fiscal powers to extract concessions from other elected officials. In order to address that, one of the primary goals of the 1973 Louisiana Constitutional Convention was to deprive the governor of his economic thumbscrews. So the resultant 1974 Constitution protected funding for almost all of state government.
But not higher education. While the Convention was ongoing, the universities were busy playing defense, trying to make sure that no one got more than they did. So no one got anything. That has held Louisiana higher ed back for 40 years.
Then the state hit a perfect storm. With the country in a deep recession, we elected a particularly regrettable governor who saw his office as a stepping stone to a national presence, and who therefore had little interest in the long-term viability of the state’s economy, including the strategic importance of higher education. Despite the recession and projected deficits, in his two terms in office he slashed taxes while hiring pricey national consultants, and to cover the shortfall he gutted higher education funding. While doing this he warned university officials that anyone who publicly objected would be fired. One prominent university official ignored the warning, complained loudly, and was quickly removed from his position.
Nevertheless, even while the universities were suffering cuts they were still playing defense to hamper the advancement of other schools. For all of the educated personnel they employ, universities are often slow learners. As a result, while Louisiana pursues the football mentality the rest of the country has left us behind intellectually.
So in times of progress and intellectual expansion, the win-lose aspect of the football mentality actually becomes lose-lose.
Image by J.C. Leyendecker, courtesy of Pinterest.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||China and India are each several times larger than the USA; and the next modernized democracy at #10 on the list, is Japan, which is smaller than Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. (Russia comes in at #9, but I do not yet consider them to be a fully modernized democracy.)|