Margaret Soltan has been doing a fantastic job lately of tracking stories about the poisoned, hopelessly corrupt relationship between higher education and athletics.
Here we are in the middle of March Madness again. This year, as every year, brings to light the endless, fervid creative energies invested by some college athletics programs in evading both the spirit and letter of rules and restrictions. “Prep schools” designed to free youthful athletic prospects from any semblance of education. “Bunny courses” hand-picked by administrators to ensure star athletes never have to meet any serious academic standards. More importantly, some of the stories that Soltan has been tracking have suggested that even the usual alibi, that such programs are major sources of operating funds for public and private universities, is false in many cases, that many major athletic programs cost far more than they take in, or that their financial benefits to the academic programs are minor at best. Not only are many institutions selling their soul, they’re not even getting a good price for it.
I noted that it’s fairly odd in a way that so much fervor gets put into the debate over whether the professoriate is too liberal, or whether academic institutions are stagnant, and yet this topic gets glossed over by the usual suspects hammering on universities and colleges for their shortcomings. In scope and significance, there is much more to worry about in terms of athletics and academia.
Athletics are an important part of any four-year residential program of education. The standard justifications for an athletics program at a school like Swarthmore are perfectly valid. You learn things through athletic competition that you don’t learn in the classroom. When we eliminated football here, one of the anguished objections was that Swarthmore students were already too over-intellectualized, too captured by a narrow conception of scholasticism. I don’t know that I agree with that, exactly, but I understand something of the underlying complaint. Athletics are potentially a good cure for insularity in many respects. However, whether you’re Swarthmore or UCLA, all of these functions are served just as well by a strong program of intramural and small-stakes intercollegiate competition. None of them are dependent upon building a strongly competitive athletics program, or having powerhouse teams.
The other function of an athletics program in many academic institutions is the real reason they are defended so strongly by so many. They give alumni a way to hang on to the institutions, a sense of ongoing connnection, a powerful and legitimate fiction of extensible institutional and communal identity. There is very little else that alumni can view from a distance that allows this kind of pleasant affinity, this sense of belonging to an ongoing tradition. I’ve found it hard to fit in a continuing engagement with our alums this semester through a year-long program of reading recent novels and memoirs of Africa, which is entirely my own fault due to overcommitment (and yes, distraction: once again, I’m not joking about the title of this blog). Most colleges and universities don’t have anything even that tangible to offer as a connection to faculty (and many faculty would scorn it if it were asked of them). At many major public and private universities, I’d guess that coursework isn’t very high on the list of things that alumni remember fondly anyway. What else might you root for at your alma mater, or watch proudly from a distance?
It’s not just alumni. In many parts of the United States, the college football and basketball teams are the only local source of entertaining, high-level competitive athletics. They’re the civic glue that holds communities and regions together, gives them a sense of collective pride and identity. So many communities desperately need what college athletics provides to them: they couldn’t afford it otherwise on their own. While what goes on behind the closed doors of classrooms and offices within the university may be more distantly appreciated for the benefits it provides to the rising generation, much of the educational dividend flows elsewhere as graduates head out and away. The payroll, of course, is the other direct civic benefit, but even that goes to a smaller area than what a major athletics program with competitive teams can provide to a large region.
Against that, what is the harm of highly competitive college athletics to academic institutions? I think the conventional point that it harms the athletes themselves is underappreciated by the devotees of most college sports, in part because they (like the athletes themselves) tend to have tunnel vision for the perishingly small number of college stars who succeed wildly in professional careers. Even here, you could wonder at the opportunity cost: a star baseball player can head straight into a minor league career if they’re competitive at the age of 18, without even needing to pretend to being a college student. What that star does at the age of 35 or 40, at retirement, is up to them. Why not the same for all major professional sports? Why futz around with college?
For those athletes who are not going to be professional successes, or whose professional status is marginal, college might in fact make sense. It only makes sense, however, if it prepares the borderline athlete for something other than athletics, gives them meaningful credentials and training. Right now, many competitive college athletics programs don’t do that for their students: they train their students instead in evading education and academic challenge. So what you get, from high school onward, is a much larger group of men, many of them African-American, who are exploited as cannon fodder, used up and thrown away, with nothing to show for it.
That may be the least of it, though. I think more deeply than any institution which exempts some fraction of its clients or its members from the standards it otherwise upholds is eating through its own foundations. When cheating and mocking the rules becomes normalized, when the abuse of power is a secret in plain sight, when the values an institution claims to cherish are routinely rubbished in practice, you’re just counting down until the whole thing collapses.
These are old complaints, and they don’t seem to convince those who value college athletics in their current form. Partly because they try to shoehorn the legitimate civic value of those programs back into a conventional academic program. I think the only way out is to spin off those programs, to take them out of universities altogether. What major university programs should do, I think, is continue to invest money in their athletics programs as a form of contributory investment in their communities and regions, but decouple them entirely from the academic institution. If a student wants to play, that’s his or her choice. Let him or her earn an outright salary as an athlete, no different than a student holding down a job in any other context. If he or she doesn’t make the cut into the big leagues at a later date, then he or she can go back to college at the age of 22 or 24 or 28. If he or she can’t balance work and school, then the athlete should choose, just as any other student chooses. Impose no more academic restrictions or requirements on college-sponsored athletics teams. Make college-sponsored athletic teams into the official minor leagues of professional football and basketball, and invite the NBA and the NFL to join universities in investing in the teams and refining forms of standardized uptake from these minor leagues.
So you’d have “The Michigan Wolverines”, who would still compete at the university stadium (offered to the team as part of the university’s subsidy), retain affectational ties to UM, and be subsidized substantially by the university. They’d play other teams in their minor league division that were also formerly university teams, to retain traditional rivalries. The team could compete freely for athletes without any need to admit them to the university, paying free-market salaries to players. Just as now, some athletes could potentially opt to leap straight to the big leagues, and just as now, there would be significant reasons for the NBA and NFL to discourage that in all but a handful of cases.
The only thing that might seem lost in this scheme is that sense that students in residential programs benefit from an athletic experience, but the big-name programs don’t service that need anyway. Even here at Swarthmore, competitive rugby, lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, and ultimate frisbee were in my view far better at speaking to that need than football, and similarly so I think at most colleges and universities. None of that needs to end: every university with a residential program still would need to support competitive sports which have no major professional outcome as well as strong intramural programs. The support for such programs, however, wouldn’t need coaches who demand $3 million annual salaries or entail the ongoing subversion of the curriculum: everything about them could be in scale with the everyday goals and structure of a university.