Imagine that you used to play basketball just about every day down at the playground with a whole group of people. You were responsible for bringing the ball, and you took that responsibility seriously, so the first thing you’d do before playing is pick up the ball and give it a squeeze, bounce it a couple of times to check the action. Usually you’d decide the ball needed just a little shot of air, one or two plunges of the bike pump with the needle attachment on the end at the most. Lots of people probably wouldn’t even notice the difference before and after, but you knew it mattered.
At some point, you lose the needle attachment for the pump, and you never seem to have time to get a replacement, but no matter, you still have a perfectly good basketball.
For a while, anyway.
Over time you realize that when you dribble, getting the ball back to your hand requires more force than usual. Still, everyone wants to play, and let’s say that now that little needle attachment is either scarce or kind of expensive, so you just keep showing up with the less than ideal ball.
It’s fine. Sure, the missed shots thud against the rim and bounce passes seem to skid under the hands of the intended recipient, but if anyone came by and saw what the gang is doing, they’d say you were playing basketball.
The games continue, and every time you pick up the ball you realize that you wish you could replace the needle attachment, but honestly, sitting there in the corner of the garage, the basketball still looks very much like a basketball, and when you go to the playground, you still do basketball-like things.
Maybe you don’t need the needle attachment after all?
OK, the ball is now sufficiently deflated that you can no longer dribble with one hand, so you have to use two hands to kind of hurl the thing to the ground, over and over again, but it’s basically basketball.
With this ball, obviously double dribbling cannot be enforced, so you change the rules to allow that. Now when people drive by and see what you’re doing, they recognize elements of basketball, but also think that you must not know the actual rules of the game, and they wonder what’s going wrong with the world that people don’t even know how to dribble a basketball anymore.
Over time, even the two-handed slam dribble becomes too taxing, so you eliminate traveling, too. The ball is not so much round anymore but kind of oblong, with flat spots on each side. Now that there’s no dribbling, it’s impossible to steal the ball on defense without fouling, so increased body contact is allowed as the defender tries to wrest the partially deflated basketball away from the person in possession.
The shape and weight of the ball also makes shooting from anywhere other than underneath the basket nearly impossible, so offenses charge toward the opposing basket, shoulders down, heaving the ball between players until they are in a position to toss the ball through the hoop. The defenders try to take the ball away, but this, too, becomes too difficult within even the relaxed standards of body contact, so it’s decided that now tackling is allowed.
While this sport is played on a basketball court, using a ball that once (but no longer) functioned as a basketball, it is now sufficiently different that you give it a name, something like Super Slam Ball, and for a while, it is sort of novel, and you and the other players tell yourselves and the world that Super Slam Ball is actually pretty f-ing awesome, like a cross between basketball and rugby. It’s much tougher than either, if you think about it, being tackled on blacktop and having to shoot the oblong ball through a hoop. It’s a real badge of honor to be able to survive a game of Super Slam Ball, win or lose.
Of course, whereas you used to play basketball all day, swapping new players in and out as they came to the playground, you can only muster a game of Super Slam Ball every few weeks, because let’s face it, it takes a while to heal up from being tackled on the blacktop, and it’s frankly been tough to get a lot of new people interested in Super Slam Ball.
But since it’s the only game around, people who want to play something still show up, but over time, fewer and fewer people join, and soon more are leaving than starting.
Finally someone manages to acquire one of those needle attachments for the bike pump, and the decision is made to inflate the Super Slam Ball back into a basketball. The task is a little arduous. Where before it would take two or three pumps at the most to get the ball to proper inflation, this takes 20, 30, 40 or more. You keep testing the ball every 10 or so pumps to see if it’s good enough, and one of those times, even though you know it’s not quite right, you take it to the playground.
It reminds you of the old times, but because the ball isn’t properly inflated, it’s not quite as good. When you put the ball back in the corner of the garage, you notice that the rubber seal around where the pump needle is inserted is brittle and cracked, and if you squeeze the ball, little puffs of air leak out.
Next time you go to play, you notice that the basketball is looking more like a Super Slam Ball, and you debate whether or not it would be even worth the time to reinflate it, given the fact that it will take another 40 or 50 pumps and the thing is just going to deflate again anyway.
Just about everyone agrees that basketball is superior to Super Slam Ball, but no one wants to pony up the money for a new basketball, so as regrettable as it seems, and as much as people miss basketball, the only way to keep moving forward is to stick with Super Slam Ball and just call it basketball, because if you want new players, you have to promise them basketball.
I don’t know if public higher education is basketball that has morphed into Super Slam Ball or if the notion that it was ever basketball is an illusion, pure wishful thinking.
What I do know is that we cannot keep pretending that what’s happening is basketball when in reality it’s Super Slam Ball.
Institutions have missions, but in too many cases, the way they operate, the manner in which they are resourced is simply inconsistent with actually achieving those missions without putting too many students into debt and without grinding down faculty and staff.
I don’t think it’s too late to have the kinds of conversations that help establish the shared values and beliefs that underlie the mission, but it does require recognizing what’s happening for real, and that that basketball isn’t a basketball anymore.