Society / October 4, 2023

How DeSantis Is Using Sports to Hijack a Florida College

The far-right extremists in charge of New College are recruiting baseball players to overhaul the ideology of the student body.

Dave Zirin
photo of new college florida ron desantis education

A view of the campus of the New College of Florida in Sarasota, Fla., on January 19, 2023.

(Thomas Simonetti / Getty)

In a little-noticed story, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) accepted the membership of New College, a 700-student institution in Sarasota, Fla., that did not even have an athletics department a few months ago. Monday’s unanimous decision came after “a thorough vetting process,” according to conference chairman David Armstrong. That Armstrong’s “thorough vetting process” preceded the acceptance makes the news all the more appalling. The NAIA chose to legitimize the openly right-wing seizure of the institution. The recent actions of New College’s administration has been at odds with the rights of teachers, students, and the very principles of education. The NAIA should have rejected the application. Instead, the unanimous vote is a green light for far-right takeovers of institutions beyond Sarasota.

The creation of a New College athletic department has been one of the school’s top priorities since Governor Ron DeSantis, a far-right authoritarian with a penchant for baseball, decided to crush and remake the institution in his own image. The floundering presidential aspirant is using New College to show what he wants to do to higher ed nationally as part of his “war on woke.” This has included pushing out allegedly “left-wing” professors; shutting down departments like gender studies; eliminating its diversity, equity, and inclusion workforce; forcing out students; painting over political murals; preventing student orientation leaders from wearing Black Lives Matter or Pride pins; eliminating gender-neutral bathrooms; and hiring political bottom-feeders to run the whole operation. These flunkies include interim school president Richard Corcoran, who calls his admissions department, with all of his boss’s trademark subtlety, “Seal Team Six” after the kill squad that took out Osama bin Laden. Another school leader of this hostile takeover is a grandstanding, media-addicted gadfly named Christopher Rufo, best known for leading online harassment campaigns against professors who teach “critical race theory” or support transgender students. If you ever wanted to know what your racist uncle would do to a college if given absolute control, you can just look at New College.

And NAIA membership is critical to their project. The far-right extremists in charge are using sports to overhaul the ideology of the student body. In a recent press release posted on Florida’s official state website, DeSantis boasts of the “success” of the New College. He crows that in addition to canceling departments and driving out undesirable students and faculty, the former Yale baseball player celebrates “the introduction of intercollegiate athletics outside of existing intramural sports by forming six teams and a scholarship fund for incoming athletes and recruitment of nearly 150 student athletes since launching the athletic program in the spring.” The number, according to media reports, is more like 115, but it is still staggering: 115 new student athletes out of just 700 students.

As Steven Walker of the Sarasota Herald Tribune wrote, “Establishing an athletic program from scratch within months has been a foundation of Corcoran’s plan to swell the fall 2023 class, the first class under his guidance and a cornerstone in the Gov. Ron DeSantis-directed transformation of the school into a more conservative, classical liberal arts college in the mold of the Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan.”

Wilson also reports that New College will enroll 70 freshman baseball players under scholarship. The University of Florida, a Division 1 powerhouse with a student population 90 times larger than New College, has 37 baseball players on scholarship in total. Despite grades and test scores that lag badly behind other students on campus, this new crop of student athletes at New College have disproportionately received merit-based scholarships from admissions. Of the 179 incoming students awarded the $10,000 per year “presidential honors scholarship,” 84 were student athletes.

This is not about sports, and this definitely isn’t about giving student athletes the chance at a college education. This is about DeSantis’s state government sending millions in taxpayer money to New College so they can purchase a right-wing student body through athletic scholarships to replace those students they have driven out. They are building an athletics department at a school of just 700 people so they can throw money at athletes coming largely from Christian private schools to play for an athletic director and coaches of similar right-wing, religious bents.

The college has also assigned these new freshmen student athletes the fancy dorms usually reserved for upperclassmen. The upperclassmen, who come from the pre-DeSantis New College are being moved to hotels off campus and a mold-infested dorm that an outside firm said, “should not be occupied in their current condition.”

This is about privileging some students and driving out the rest on political grounds. This is a tax-payer subsidized purge. The NAIA had a choice to make, and it chose to sanction ideological cleansing. New College should be a pariah institution, but instead the NAIA unanimously welcomed it with open arms. We all know DeSantis and Rufo have an agenda. Clearly, the NAIA does as well. It had the chance to take a stand. Whether or not DeSantis somehow becomes president, we could all be feeling the consequences of this decision in the years ahead.

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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