Why does sports play such a prominent role in college education? Does it crowd out the attention we pay to other aspects of college life? Why are student athletes treated like slaves or gladiators, playing to pay colleges for the fruits of their labor? Other students enjoy “school spirit” when their team wins, and universities collect revenue from advertisers when they make it to the big leagues.
Women’s sports don’t reap the same benefits that men’s sports do. Still, Spelman’s President Beverly Daniels Tatum deserves kudos for eliminating the college’s basketball program in favor of providing physical education for all of Spelman’s students. She made the important calculation that organized sports activity costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, and just a few students benefit from the athletic training. To be sure, school spirit is elevated when Spelman students cheer against opponents; yet a burst of school spirit, however, is worth a lot less than graduating a cadre of physically aware, if not fit, young women.
At Bennett College for Women, our goal was to educate the “whole” woman – academically, intellectually, spiritually, physically, and socially. Yes, people come to college to be prepared academically, but colleges are more than four-year matriculation experiences. This is why so many colleges attempt to offer a holistic experience for students.
Unfortunately, too many schools place athletics above other aspects of student development. At Penn State University, the football team was such a moneymaking machine that the fabled coach Joe Paterno jeopardized his legacy by allegedly covering up a sex abuse scandal. At Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University (FAMU), the revered marching band found its glitter not only tarnished but also corroded by the death of one of the band members as a result of his hazing. At Duke University, lacrosse players were accused of enticing, then abusing strippers at their apartments. While the allegations were disputed, the university earned a black eye for the bad behavior of its athletes. At nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, departing Chancellor Holden Thorp spent nearly half of his time dealing with athletic scandals that included no-show classes for football players, the firing of a coach, and the possibility of academic sanctions against the university.
Basketball and football at top athletic universities (as distinguished from top academic universities) generate millions of dollars for their institutions. Athletes may be rewarded with scholarships, but with full time academic and training schedules, have to hustle for money to buy a phone, travel home, and pay for other incidentals. If a generous alumnus chooses to subsidize a student for these expenses, both the student and the school will be sanctioned.
Why not pay these athletes at least some of the money they are generating for their colleges? Or why not take college athletics down a notch, putting the millions of dollars of advertising money aside in favor of the purpose of college – education. This would probably shatter a student-pimping industry. It would also remind students that their tenure in college is about academics, not athletics.
This proposal is as likely to be implement as ice cubes are likely to survive 10 seconds in hell. Yet college leaders must grapple with the many ways that sports dollars and energy distort the educational experience. There are stadiums full of fans clapping for the last 3-pointer, or the winning touchdown, but little applause for the Phi Beta Kappa graduate, or the best poet on campus. These are societal values that have, unfortunately, penetrated the ivory tower.
My interest in this issue is the fact that many of the athletes are African Americans who often come from low- and moderate-income families. Many are student athletes who combine their athletic prowess with academic ability. Too many others have been recruited for their athletic prowess, notwithstanding athletic ability. Classes that do require little – not even attendance — do not advance the long-term interests of students.
When student-athletes get hurt, what happens to them? Some colleges will continue their scholarships, others will not. Further, the likelihood of moving from the college basketball court or gridiron to a professional one is something like 1 percent. Those who aren’t drafted and don’t make it to an athletic career often languish without even basic skills to market.
If I had my way, I’d ask that every college spend more on physical fitness than on student athletics. If I had my way, fitness would be as required a course as literature or history. Truly, if I had my way I would consider putting exploitive college athletics on the back burner.
I’m not going to have my way. On too many of our nation’s college campuses the sports mission has overshadowed the education mission. Kudos President Beverly Tatum for choosing the road less travelled.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.