sports and the academy


Maybe it’s because I’m on a high from the Australian Open final (yay Rafa!) but this post (and the subsequent comments), over at Historiann’s blog, struck a nerve with me.

Without revealing too much, I can say that I went to a university where sports were a vital part of the college experience. If you asked my freshman class what brought us to that school, an overwhelming majority would have mentioned, probably in tandem, sports and academics. At my school, they went hand-in-hand. My university (which I’ve referred to in the past as More Fun Research University, MFRU) was in another state, although still in driving distance and, when I started thinking about colleges (in middle school), the only context in which I heard about this school was through sports. Once I checked into it further, I realized its stellar reputation academically, especially in the field I’d planned to go into at the time. It was the perfect combination for me: a school where my education would be a top priority and where I would really be pushed that also had a thriving social/sport scene and a real sense of campus identity. In fact, when it came down to picking between my options senior year, I argued vigorously to go to MFRU over another option, almost exclusively based on the fact that I knew I’d enjoy the four years at MFRU more. That turned out to be the best decision of my life, since I’d been accepted into a specific program at the other school, one that would not have allowed me to transfer out of that field; as it turned out, the fallout of my major family trauma forced me out of that field. It ended up being a blessing that my transition into history didn’t involve transferring schools or being at a school with a less than notable history program.

All that to say, I loved that college sports played such a big role in my college experience and I couldn’t imagine those four years without it. And, I must add, although nobody reading my blog (that I know of) actually knew me in college, I wasn’t even all that active in the sports scene. I didn’t go to all that many games. But having it and being a part of it was important.

And my education in no way suffered.

So imagine my surprise when I get to graduate school to hear low murmurings about how horrible college sports are and how they get in the way and they’re a hassle. Huh? I’ve heard of professors who get angry when work isn’t turned in on time and other such stuff. Classes can’t be scheduled at a certain time because of practices. BS, I say. Student-athletes have a responsibility to turn in work on time. When they don’t, grade them accordingly. No sweat. Schedule those classes whenever; at MFRU (where, trust me, sports were considerably better and more important than they are at my current institution), if a student couldn’t take a class at a particular time because of conflict with practice, he or she just didn’t take that class. I’d wanted to be a manager for one of the sports teams my freshman year; when I found out practices were during one of my classes, I didn’t become a manager. Life moved on.

When I hear these complaints, I’m never convinced that they’re really about what’s best for the student or the student’s education. After all, isn’t college about the student taking charge of their own education? Plus I find it hard to accept that these students are “lazy,” seeing as they do considerably more physically each day than their peers or than us, frankly. Instead, I sense a strange antipathy, even hatred, towards the existence of sports on campus, period. And I don’t get it.

I know not everybody loves sports; that’s fine. But nobody’s complaining about choirs or theatre; debate practice or model UN. It’s just sports that gets everybody’s wrath.

So help me out, dear readers. Why do those of us in academe hate college sports so much??


5 Responses to “sports and the academy”

  1. 1 prof susurro

    I think you’ll find that your perception of the role sports plays in academe shifts from when you are an undergrad enjoying sports events and making reasonable choices (which you cannot generalize outward in any statistically significant way) and when you are a faculty member at a sport oriented university.

    I have very fond memories of my undergrad department as a place that was supportive of multiple methods, faculty identities, and intellectual pursuits. As an academe interacting with faculty of that same department, I am privy to the infighting, tenure denials based on identity or politics, and desires to remove certain methods and theories from the curriculum.

    Your vantage point changes from undergrad to tenure and rightfully so. As an undergrad, you would never be privy to a meeting in which grade inflation for athletes was condoned but as a faculty member you likely will be.

    While some might dislike sports, honestly, the majority of us are far more concerned about the number of student-athletes who will never go pro and won’t have a decent education to fall back on either and the number of faculty lines and departments that are at risk right now while we continue to recruit and pay $1-3 million to a single coach. I, personally, am also concerned about the race and class implications of this system and what it means for both youth of color and poor whites being ultimately undereducated by institutions whose primary focus is to educate. There are more than enough studies and biographies that prove this point so that it is not a subjective observation.

    I look forward to seeing what you think about these issues when you get to the otherside of your dissertation and join the professoriate.

  2. 2 thefrogprincess

    prof susurro, you bring up some good points, ones that I’m more than aware of. However, isn’t this the way of the world? For each student-athlete who won’t go pro, there are one hundred students that they left behind in subpar high schools. Surely some exposure to college is better than none and some of these students might eke out a decent education. Same with the race and class concerns that you rightly raise. I think these students are undereducated but that’s not going to change if sports are out of the picture. These students just won’t get to college and frankly, many won’t see a point in finishing high school either. The reality is that, for many of these students (and here we’re really talking about football and basketball players), sports is seen as the only way out or up from a very early age. The solution to these larger problems is not one for colleges to fix; it goes right down to our public education systems.

  3. 3 servetus

    Part of the problem, too, is that how these things shake out at different institutions is very different. You can’t generalize. For instance, at my institution, the scholarship sports programs all pay their running expenses themselves. And it’s clear that they also attract students here. AND the athletic department cuts the student athletes very little slack with regard to their academic performance. There is handholding, but I have never been pressured to change an athlete’s grade. This is in contrast to my graduate institution, where that sort of pressure happened all the time, often to the non-tenured, who were left out to dry by the department in terms of holding the line. And in contrast to my undergraduate institution, where the different sports programs seemed to operate autonomously so that instructors of athletes in some sports got pressured and others did not but where athletics in general played a much less important role. Given what I have seen, I no longer buy any general argument about athletics at American universities. It’s different everywhere, even in the sports programs that are competing in the same NCAA division.

  4. 4 prof susurro

    yes severetus it is different everywhere tho studies clearly show that it is less different from where I work than where you do. (And I am tenured & still get called in when I pass out the “F”s)

    Frog Princess – in the same way severetus cautions about generalizing about the impact of sport I would caution about generalizing about “these students” and their relationship to education. I was one of “these students” as were most of my colleagues, which is why we choose to teach where we teach, and we made it to college just fine. But you are right that racism and classism in education neither began nor will end with a re-evaluation of the role of sports in academe.

  5. 5 thefrogprincess

    prof susurro, let me be clear: I was speaking specifically about the college athletes (mainly basketball and football players) who are undereducated in part because they’ve been accepted to universities on the basis of their athletic prowess rather than their ability to handle the education. I was not referring to all non-white and/or poor students. Readers of my blog know that I am a woman of color and I did not have a privileged background. The point I was making is that many of these students who end up playing college ball spend years playing the sport starting from Pop Warner and AAU programs with the idea in their minds that they can go pro. College (especially for the NFL) is the way there. A portion of these athletes probably never would have gone to college or even finished high school without that goal in mind. That’s the system that’s in place and it’s probably not going to change any time soon.

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