School Ties

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.

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8 Responses to School Ties

  1. bnsimon36 says:

    First off, congrats on your men’s hoops team making the final 4 in the DIII NCCC Championships this year (knocking out my alma mater along the way decisively, I might add). Second off, got to put in a plug for Hamilton College Philosophy professor Robert Simon’s Fair Play, which makes a sometimes idealistic case that academics and athletics can mix (he implicitly uses DIII as his model; don’t know what he thinks of DI). But my question is whether Amherst (like many other even DIII schools) has different admissions standards for athletes and what the justification is, if so. In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting In,” I can see the shape of one potential justification (the most successful US colleges and universities actually use a ‘best graduates’ approach to admissions rather than a ‘best students’ one), but I was wondering how it plays out in a college that for a long time was part of NESCAC (which barred teams from certain kinds of post-season tournaments, most notably the NCAAs in most sports) and now is nationally competitive in DIII. I’m asking as a proponent of college sports in the DIII model.

  2. scott reents says:

    I completely agree with your suggestion. In fact, I’ve suggested it to people before, usually to looks of utter bewilderment, so it’s nice to encounter some validation. One alternative arrangement would be to actually sell off the teams to investment groups, along with a license to the university name. That way the university gets out of the business of what amounts to professional farm team management. The challenge would be to maintain the connction to the university that will keep the alumni interested, but I think it could be done. Anyway, the potential payoff seems well worth it.

  3. withywindle says:

    Perhaps the universities could retain royalties, or a proportion of equity, in case these spun-off sports teams *do* start to turn a profit.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, absolutely–basically treat it as the sports equivalent to a business start-up which a university or college contributes some subsidy and has some ownership of IP. Perhaps even treat it in a limited fashion as a university press–a project which is understood to have a civic value independent of whether it returns more than what is invested in it.

    It is hard to figure out why spectators and fans treat this as such a bizarre proposition. It’s not hard to figure out why the NFL and NBA wouldn’t root for it–they’re getting their minor leagues free of any cost or hassle to them. But for the athletes and their families, this is a winner–no more of the crazy stuff they have to go through now to get a payoff, and no more exotic pretense at compliance with various rules and restrictions.

  5. zp says:

    “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.”

    Distantly appreciated? Try openly resented. I think your plan, though, might actually strengthen town-gown relations since the investment in the community would be that more aboveboard . . .

    “You learn things through athletic competition that you don’t learn in the classroom.” As a persistantly non-competitive athlete, I learned things through participation in sports. Competition I learned through academics. Go figure.

  6. Andy says:

    I would read William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin’s “Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values” before holding up highly selective Division III schools as a model for college athletics. Bowen and Levin make a convincing case that (1) intercollegiate athletics has a larger negative impact on the admissions process at these schools because of the small size of the student body relative to the number of student athletes and (2) that many of the reforms designed to limit the influence of athletics (e.g., no athletic scholarships, limits on recruiting) have actually exacerbated the problem.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with Bowen and Levin’s analysis–it’s why I look, even here at Swarthmore, to club-oriented sports where most students can be walk-ons after admission and which retain their unspecialized character, like rugby and ultimate frisbee, or to intramural athletics. But I accept, in a way that perhaps Bowen and Levin do not, that the cultural and social history of these institutions has created a deep and legitimate association between some kind of athletic program and the overall premise of residential liberal arts education.

  8. bnsimon36 says:

    Tim, apologies for confusing Amherst and Swarthmore–don’t know what I was thinking! Andy, please keep in mind that there’s more to DIII than the NESCAC schools. Fredonia, where I work, is just as much a DIII school as Hamilton, where I went. But I think there are grounds for defending even Hamilton-style DIII. (I say this as someone who played four years on the golf team and managed the men’s hoops team for 4 years, including my senior year when we were undefeated, unable to go to NCAAs, and lost to Potsdam at home in the ECAC championships when a reserve guard of theirs went nuts on us from 3-point range. No, that didn’t hurt. Seriously, I learned as much about teaching from my best coaches as my best professors.)

    To be sure, the more that highly selective liberal arts colleges relax academic admissions standards to get the best athletes they can, the worse the consequences on the intellectual life of the campus are, especially when they insist on having successful football teams (which require lots of players). But see the relevant comment in Gladwell’s “Getting In” on The Game of Life:

    Male athletes, despite their lower S.A.T. scores and grades, and despite the fact that many of them are members of minorities and come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than other students, turn out to earn a lot more than their peers. Apparently, athletes are far more likely to go into the high-paying financial-services sector, where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup. In what can only be described as a textbook example of burying the lead, Bowen and Shulman write:

    One of these characteristics can be thought of as drive—a strong desire to succeed and unswerving determination to reach a goal, whether it be winning the next game or closing a sale. Similarly, athletes tend to be more energetic than the average person, which translates into an ability to work hard over long periods of time—to meet, for example, the workload demands placed on young people by an investment bank in the throes of analyzing a transaction. In addition, athletes are more likely than others to be highly competitive, gregarious and confident of their ability to work well in groups (on teams).

    Shulman and Bowen would like to argue that the attitudes of selective colleges toward athletes are a perversion of the ideals of American élite education, but that’s because they misrepresent the actual ideals of American élite education. The Ivy League is perfectly happy to accept, among others, the kind of student who makes a lot of money after graduation. As the old saying goes, the definition of a well-rounded Yale graduate is someone who can roll all the way from New Haven to Wall Street.

    This has to be true, as well, for highly selective liberal arts colleges, for several reasons: (1) while their endowments are large in a relative sense, they simply can’t approach Princeton’s $10.8B, for instance, so have to look at the bottom line to make sure they have long-term futures (and can continue to compete in the status game); (2) I would bet it’s harder to get into a Williams or an Amherst than a Harvard or a Princeton, not least b/c there are fewer seats, so there’s pressure on the smaller schools not to give in on academic merit (should such a thing exist and be measureable in an admissions process) too far; (3) moreover, being smaller, such schools would have to be more sensitive to potential negative effects on campus life, since athletes would make up a larger proportion of the student body than at larger schools, so again there’s pressure to keep admissions standards relatively high; (4) being competitive in DIII is very different than being competitive in DI (don’t tell me an Ivy League school wouldn’t love to make it to the second round of the NCAAs in basketball next year!), and there’s a wider range of high school athletes who can be competitive at that level, so the odds of being able to recruit academically as well as athletically talented people rise.

    The bottom line for me is that athletes even at highly selective liberal arts colleges in DIII are not as different from the rest of the student body as they are at other institutions, so such schools should have an easier time integrating them into the cultural and intellectual life of the campus.

    Even at a place like Fredonia, Music, Theater, and Arts majors put in as much time honing their artistic talents as anyone on a team does their athletic talents, so they are in as much danger of becoming segregated from the rest of the campus as athletes are. (I thought I was going to be getting a lot of artsy folks in my classes, but turns out they barely have time to take even gen ed courses b/c their major requirements are so stringent!) Why should we value artistic performances over athletic performances? Shouldn’t we encourage a diverse range of ways for students to contribute to campus life?

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