Op-Ed on Sports and Academia

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an op-ed piece by the director of a research institute at UNC on her ideas of how to fix the problems with college sports. Unfortunately, I don’t find it to be very convincing. The author argues for allowing varsity athletes to get a degree in sports/athletics. This seems to me to be one of the worst possible ways to fix things. Instead of working to reduce the amount of money in athletics and strengthen incentives/requirements to actually educate athletes in revenue-generating sports, this sounds like giving up on ever fixing anything. The suggestions for special classes for athletes are more or less what led to the recent problems at UNC in the first place. When athletics becomes the primary focus of part of an academic department (i.e. the school part of school), there are huge incentives to reduce the rigor of the classes (or even get rid of the class altogether except on paper) to keep athletes eligible, no matter how academically unprepared or uninvolved they are.

I strongly suspect that giving athletes more than token credit for things like weightlifting would lead to schools giving lip service to the idea of this as a class while treating this simply as another part of practice. Does anyone really expect students at a major Division I football team to learn physiology from team weightlifting? The whole idea sounds preposterous.

Equally troubling is the focus on things like licensing, leadership, experiential learning and others. These are basically all just buzzwords being used to justify handing credit to varsity athletes while asking for nothing in return other than performance on the field. Nothing in the article sounds as if these sports majors would offer the kind of rigorous, coherent curricula that are found in traditional academic fields.

The author’s comparisons of art to sports are not really apt. Arts students typically don’t get the kinds of perks that varsity athletes at major programs get and also don’t get the kinds of huge breaks in admissions that are especially common in football and basketball. Furthermore, the arts hold a very different position in our culture compared to sports. Arts are seen as an intellectual pursuit and as part of a millennia-old cultural tradition. Sports are seen more as mass entertainment or even martial training, but not as intellectual exercises. The revenue-generating sports of football and basketball have only existed in something like their current forms for 100 years. In other words, the arts are part of what we might call “high culture” while sports are part of low or vulgar (in the sense of “common”) culture. This distinction may be arbitrary, but it does exist. Even in the arts, for example, classical music is regarded by most as more academic or intellectual than Top 40 radio. In writing, there is the difference between literary fiction and pulp fiction. The high culture variants of the arts are seen as worthy of academic study while the mass-market versions are often not. There are certainly many things about things like sports or pop music that are worthy of study, but that doesn’t mean that we should hand degrees for playing football, passably singing a pop song written by someone else, or writing a trashy romance novel.