November 6, 2003

Evaluating the Place of Sports in College

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Have you ever wondered about where varsity sports belong in the university? At first when I asked myself the question it seemed silly. Colleges have sports teams — end of story. So it goes on the surface. If you look deeper though, some interesting questions arise, and the answers grow more and more unclear.

The university is, undoubtedly, a place of higher learning, a place where individuals go to learn how to think, to learn how to solve problems, and gain the knowledge necessary to do a certain job. The university’s first and most important task is to educate its students, a task reflected in the phrase, “student-athlete”. As my high school cross country coach (and countless other coaches, I’m sure) very aptly pointed out, student comes before athlete. Education is more important than sports.

According to that reasoning — education before athletics — sport’s job in the university is to broaden a student’s experience, to add elements of competition, practice, dedication, and camaraderie to the every day academic tasks of listening, evaluation, memorization and study. In this way, a sport enriches the student-athlete. But at the same time, sports affect more than just their participants; the benefits extend to the whole university, sometimes even a whole community or a state. A team can bring a whole campus full of students together for a sporting event, fostering community within the university; it can bring back alumni and even include people who have never seen the university with their own eyes, let alone attended it.

In these capacities, athletics serve the university. They bring people together while they teach lessons that will resonate throughout an athlete’s life. This is the ideal the Ivy League (and many other institutions) aspires for, the yeoman collegiate athlete, versed in his or her studies and, fit, competitive, and active in the school. This is the student-athlete.

If the teams at America’s universities were filled with such student athletes there would be few problems with collegiate athletics. The athletes, though, are human, and so are their schools’ administrators. Because they are, issues aside from education and physical prowess creep into the picture.

By their nature, varsity sports are competitive events and just as they can drive students to excellence, they can also drive students away from excellence. Competitive desire drives students to win, but it can also drive them to ignore their studies for more practice time, or to take steroids, or simply to cheat in their classes or on the field.

And the university is an imperfect judge of its athletes’ conduct. A winning squad can bring a school publicity, better students (and athletes), and money — a lot of money. With a 105,000 seat stadium and eight sold-out home football games, I can assure you that the Ohio State athletic department will be in the black this year. Because of the competition for money, for students, and for publicity, a university has a vested interest in seeing its teams win, and so it does everything it can to woo the best athletes, from scholarships to lowered standards to special treatment.

On the surface, the Ivy League remains the bastion of the student-athlete, because it eschews athletic scholarships; it very publicly proclaims its academics-first policy and holds that its athletes must meet the standard of admission just like any other student. It still has recruits though, and those recruits undoubtedly have their athletic talents taken into account in their admissions processes, and the admissions office can bend its normal requirements for the right athletes.

So the question arises: How much is athletics worth to the university? To the students? How much is a 6-4 240-pound build and a killer slapshot worth to a school? What about a sweet move to the basket? Or 9:10 two-mile time? How much is it worth to fill a hockey rink or a football stadium?

From a strictly academic standpoint, all those things are worth less, certainly, than a 1600 on the SATs or a high-school class president with a 4.0 GPA. But what about the worth to the university? The academics certainly won’t make the institution more money or gain publicity, at least not directly. The athletes can. What about value to the community? Does a straight-A student who never leaves his room (except for classes, of course) contribute more to the university than an All-Ivy quarterback with a 2.0? What about a winning basketball or hockey team that performs below average academically? Almost anyone would agree that those athletes will inspire more unity within the university than the student. Their involvement within the community and the university makes them more valuable. Where should the lowest academic standards be?

In the extreme examples, universities exploit their student-athletes for millions of dollars. It happens at sold-out football and basketball stadiums all over the country. But at the same time, those athletes receive special treatment for their efforts: access to medical care, increased influence on campus, help in registering for classes, etc. And those things happen everywhere, in the Ivy League, Big 10, and Division III liberal arts schools, everywhere. They happen because the university wants its teams to win, and it wants winning to be as easy as possible for its athletes. A certain amount of special treatment is inevitable; shouldn’t a university hold itself for responsible for the injuries a football player suffers on the field? Certainly. Where should that treatment stop, though? Each university must choose that for itself.

Colleges give their athletes the opportunity of a lifetime, the opportunity to travel around the country in competition, to gain life-long friends and experiences, and to help bring the entire student body of the university together. Athletics gives the rest of the students in the university a meeting point, a sense of pride, a unifying element beyond their common place of study.

Athletics give the university a name and a face to show the public. Problems only arise when the universities let their competitive desire for that face to show the public cloud their vision, when they let it lead them astray from their academic goals and purposes. I am willing to trust the current governing body of college athletics, the NCAA, and the colleges themselves, to police their actions, as long as they do it in public. A college must set the standards for itself, openly and publicly, because it owes that to its students. An applicant should know what preference his or her school places on sport.

The greatest fault of the Ivies, I believe, is the opacity of their admissions standards. The Ancient Eight does perhaps the best job of seeking (and finding) the yeoman student-athlete, and I’ll accept their methods. I’ll accept an athlete with slightly lower scores on his SATs if he makes my school better, but I feel I should know how much lower my school is willing to accept. Athletics hold an integral role in the success of most universities, and because of that they should be preserved. But we should always remember the ideal student-athlete, even if he or she is perfection, unattainable.

With those two things in mind, I believe a university can build varsity athletics into itself to make it stronger, more vital, and even more essential than it already is. The process should be eminently transparent though, so any student can know exactly where athletics stands.

With that in mind, I guess my original question was wrong. I shouldn’t wonder where athletics belong; I can only conclude that they do. The question is where they stand in my university. And that I’d still like to know.

Archived article by Matt James