That's entertainment (but it shouldn't be)!

Posted: Dec 10, 2002 12:00 AM
For all the locker-room flavor of the thing, Texas A&M's sacking of its longtime, esteemed football coach, R.C. Slocum, achieves a certain cultural significance. Which is to say: Huh? A coach praised for running an honest football program and amassing a 0.721 winning record gets sacked? Indeed. If a non-Aggie may say so (and he will, even if uninvited), the thing looks pretty sordid. Sordid but altogether characteristic of -- well, we're back to culture. Actually, let's not say Slocum got sacked. He got the hook -- the time-honored vaudeville technique for retrieving a tedious performer dancing his heart out on center stage. Slocum is -- was -- in the entertainment business. That is what it comes down to so often in modern life. What we want is a good time. Our leaders contrive to give it to us, knowing that unless they do we may very well procure new leaders. Send in the clowns! When we weary of them, we'll kick them out and insert a fresh set. Enjoyment is what it's all about. We know as much. Still, we grimace when an institution of, supposedly, higher learning confirms it for us. Of our universities, we used to expect more, though that was evidently some time ago. R.C. Slocum was a winning coach; he just didn't win as often as he once did. If he wasn't going to win -- right now -- it was time for the Aggies to assemble a firing squad. Ready, aim -- no more Slocum. The reason is not far to seek. Without a football coach able to do better than 0.721, distinguished authorities such as sports editors, alumni association fund-raisers, and fans who couldn't find College Station with a map and a Ouija board might cease to esteem the Aggies. Heavens to Betsy! I had said the question that emerges is cultural. Why so? Clearly, R.C. Slocum isn't the first football coach who ever got fired for sub-par performance. (My own academic homestead, Baylor, recently fired a coach painfully less successful than Slocum.) A free society, in some degree, stays free by rewarding winners and penalizing losers -- including U.S. presidents. The marketplace can be callous. Better callous than a lot of other things, for instance, despotically controlled. It is not that you can't and shouldn't ever fire people. It is that firings can -- as Slocum's certainly does -- call attention to a disproportion in systems of value and worth. Thanks perhaps to prosperity, the entertainment business in America seems the main modern business -- sex, shopping, eating out, traveling, going on cruises, watching sports. Even supposedly serious enterprises such as newspapers and churches appear, judging by performance, to see half their duty as amusement of the customers. What's wrong with a little entertainment? Don't we deserve it? I daresay we do. Maybe the problem is more of venue than of degree. A college, a university, has at its core a serious commitment -- the acquiring and imparting of knowledge for its own sake. To ask a rude question: What if the Aggies never won another football game? What if there weren't any more college football games, period (as at the University of Chicago, where Chancellor Hutchins put a stop to football in 1939)? Would the stars in their courses stop and the seas go dry? It seems improbable. What if, on the other hand, the Aggies closed their libraries and labs and said, "See you all at Kyle Field"? A comparison of extremes can be illuminating. Football is fine. Fun is fine. The golden mean is fine. Do we adhere today to that ideal? What seems mainly to matter to our taste-shapers is serving us our daily dollops of entertainment -- a k a bread and circuses. By firing a top-notch football coach for being insufficiently entertaining, Texas A&M shows itself insufficiently serious: but very modern, that's for sure, with eyes focused squarely on the main chance. Some fans might actually consider that a compliment.