Sunday, December 2, 2007

College Sport - Good, Bad, and Ugly

What a Season!

Today we are a little off topic. College football is one of my favorite pastimes. I have worked closely with athletic programs at major universities and must tell you the excitement generated on a campus that has a winning program is like no other. The highs are higher and the lows lower in sport than in life. If sport is art and art does indeed imitate life, sport can teach us plenty about fairness, playing by the rules, consequences, and other life experiences, but there is no correlation between life experiences and those of a winning sport team, especially in a community that had not had one previously.

This analysis comes from a person whose own most intense college athletic experience consisted of shifting into second gear - and I'd often grind the gears when doing that. Ok, truth be told, while in college I did have three wrestling matches in the back seat of a Packard, but I don't tout those because I was pinned two out of the three times. Despite such a dearth of college athletic experiences, or maybe because of it, I found myself in the position of providing academic support services for student athletes at a major Division-I athletic program. I soon discovered a few basic truths: despite the stereotype, the vast majority of college athletes do indeed have the intelligence to complete a college degree. Most have a much stronger sense of self discipline than does the average student. Those truths are balanced by the fact that too often their coaches do not have the academic well being of the student athlete foremost in their mind.

I once approached a coach who had made much of the fact that his athletes were provided academic support services and he was most supportive of required study halls, academic progress reports, class schedules that were built around an actual major other than eligibility, and all things academic. When his star running back missed several study halls I approached the coach and suggested it would make a strong statement to both the team and the community at large if the student athlete were suspended for one game for missing required study sessions. The coach invited me into his office, closed the door, and gave me a strong dose of reality.

"Doc," he said, "That running back will probably be the determining factor whether we win Saturday's game." I was with him so far and told him that is exactly why a suspension would show the importance placed on academics in this university's athletic program. He held his hand up to stop me and continued, "If we have a zero graduation rate and my record on the field is 11-0 and we go to a bowl game, I will not only get to keep my job, I will get a bonus and probably a raise as well as bonuses for my staff and probably a great recruiting class for next year. However, if our graduation rate is 100% and our record on the field is 0-11, I will get fired and so will my staff."

I left his office with that feeling in the pit of my stomach that feels like I'd just had a dose of reality shoved down my throat and I didn't like it. The coach was willing to support my efforts for academic excellence but only to a point. So I decided to conduct an informal survey to see if that view was either held or supported by faculty, community members and members of the booster club whose money, along with the revenue earned by playoffs, bowl games, TV appearances, ticket sales, etc. provided for more than 80% of the budget of the athletic program.

First on my list were faculty members. I spoke to a cross section from all academic disciplines without regard to whether or not athletes would enroll for their classes. The results surprised me. Probably five percent of the faculty members spoke desparagingly about athletes. One, a philosophy professor, even told me that he did not feel athletes belong on a college campus and on the first day of class he always asks if there are any athletes. For those foolish enough to admit their status he tells them to drop his course. When I asked those who could be categorized as anti-athlete why they felt this way, especially if athletes rarely register for their classes, I heard every stereotype of a student athlete that one could imagine - they don't come to class, they're disruptive, they cheat, they require extra time when schedules require makeup work, etc.

Another five percent or so of the faculty were strong supporters of athletes and athletics. I was told that they welcome athletes in their class and do everything possible to accommodate them even if it means bending rules. One even asked it I could get tickets for his family and relatives who planned to visit over a particular weekend. I declined. After removing the 10% (5% anti and 5% overly "helpful") I found that the other 90% of the faculty couldn't care less what their students did outside their class. They were there to teach and offer support as needed.

The next group I informally surveyed were community members. I discovered roughly the same breakdown as in the faculty. Five percent were pro athlete, five percent were anti and 90% couldn't care less. But among the boosters, as one might expect, most believed the athletes should receive extra benefits. A surprising number couldn't care less whether the student athlete graduated, attended class or not. They just wanted to be entertained.

I took the results of my informal survey to the Director of Athletics at the university, a 30-year veteran of intercollegiate athletics who had been an athlete, coach, professor, and administrator, and told him what I had discovered and asked if the results surprised him. He said he felt what I'd found was fairly representative of the groups I'd surveyed and then smacked me with my next dose of reality. He said, "Do you think the community in general cares about what goes on in a university outside the athletic department?" As I looked up dumbfounded he continued, "Look no further than the local newspaper. Sports has its own section. Academics is relegated to perhaps a story or two when a bond issue is floated or teachers ask for a raise, or tuition costs rise. Otherwise, most Americans turn to the sports page first."

I left the office a sadder but wiser person. It is true, most people don't care about athletics unless their team is in contention for a trophy. So who is to protect the athletes from being exploited? Is it the college presidents who see winning teams as an opportunity to generate more fund raising for the university's general fund ? Is it the regulatory agency, the NCAA who earn millions, perhaps billions in TV revenue and other revenue generating sources built on the backs of 18-22 year old young people? Is it the coaches associations whose athletes are from poor and minority backgrounds in far greater percentages than the mostly white male coaching and administrative staffs?

No, my readers, college athletics is less about sport than business. Even athletes who show enough promise to have a professional career are forbidden to leave college prior to the time their graduating class has graduated. The college athlete is an indentured servant. What's that you say? In return for sacrificing his body for four years he gets a free education and academic support services? That is only partly true - assuming the athlete does not have a career-ending injury, does not turn out to be a "recruiting mistake" whose athletic ability did not develop, or who did not drop out for other reasons. Besides, the college degree might be worth $ 20,000 per year but the revenue paid to the university for one of the larger bowl games can exceed $ 10,000,000. College sports are big business. A little traveling music, maestro.... how about "Pennies From Heaven."

Dr. Forgot

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