College athletes perform in front of millions of fans and generate billions of dollars. And then they go to class. They sit in desks alongside other students, take tests, write papers, and listen to their professors. How do these professors view the athletes who sit in their classrooms, and the larger system of big-time sports at their universities? We asked four faculty members at universities with Division I athletics programs, who work with athletes as students, to give an inside view of the problems – and benefits – of college sports. 

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You are all faculty members at schools with teams in the top level of college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, and men’s basketball teams that regularly reach the NCAA national tournament. Before we discuss the problems that big-time sports programs cause at universities, let’s talk first about the benefits. As professors, what positive aspects of major sports programs do you see at your schools?

David Ridpath (Ohio University): As someone who has worked at several Division I institutions, inside and outside of athletics, I have seen the benefits and problems up close. While there are sometimes ancillary benefits such as increased enrollment, enhanced branding, fundraising, etc., those aspects are not guaranteed and are often not met. Without solid empirical research backing up those claims, I feel it is time to focus on what are and can be the main benefits of intercollegiate athletic programs – benefits that are backed by results and not hyperbole.

First, the potential academic benefit cannot be discounted. Even though academics often get short shrift in the discussion, there are numerous examples where athletics has been a positive impetus for a young person to seek educational and social growth. It can be argued that this benefit is decreasing, but it’s still of vital importance to many. The athletic scholarship is still a very solid financial aid package.

Personally, I’ve observed that the athletes in my classes are typically stronger, more diligent students. I do think that extra and/or co-curricular activity can make for better and more focused students. Whether it’s ROTC, athletics, or performing arts, these activities have great social and intellectual benefits to the institution and to society at large. In particular, I still feel strongly that athletic participation is a benefit for individuals, that being of sound mind and body makes people healthier and better citizens.

Alumni and student relations are also important. As someone who has lived all across the country, the connection to my baccalaureate school is primarily through athletics. I am part of other alumni groups, but I have a greater connection to the university through athletics. Whether this is right or wrong is up for debate, but I do enjoy hearing about my school. I’m not concerned with national championships, nor do I want the integrity of the institution compromised for wins. Just being able to connect with my school is important.

I do feel that intercollegiate athletics – if properly managed as a part of the institution – can be an excellent touch point for the university and its overall academic and social offerings. In America, we grow up with educationally based sport development. College athletics can still do that, without resorting to the destruction of academic integrity we see now.

Travis Vogan (University of Iowa): I should preface my thoughts by saying that my only experiences with Division I athletics are as a teacher of athletes, an erstwhile and somewhat reluctant fan, and a person who lives in a town that is obsessed with its university’s athletic programs, especially the football team. I agree with Dave that many athletes are highly motivated and well organized students. Athletes tend to be among my best students. This has been the case at the three Division I schools where I’ve taught over the last decade. You certainly cannot become an elite anything without being smart, driven, and organized. Of course, the athletic department’s minions lord over them to make sure they are attending class and performing up to a certain level. But most of them are also just used to succeeding; school is merely another opportunity for achievement.

I find myself wanting to switch to the negatives at this point, so I’ll move on to my next positive. . .

In a place like Iowa, university athletics give people a point of community and identity. This is certainly not a novel point, but it’s an important one. While I was visiting family in Washington state a few weeks ago I saw someone at the store with an Iowa hoodie. I gave him a nod and asked what he thought “our” (we were now sporting relatives) chances were against Tennessee in the unfortunately named TaxSlayer Bowl (spoiler alert: it didn’t go so well). After the weather, Hawkeye sports is usually among the first topics strangers use for chit-chat. For socially awkward folks like me, it’s good to keep a few factoids in my hat about “our” running game or rebounding to get through a dental appointment or trip to the grocery store.

Yago Colás (University of Michigan): Like Dave and Travis, I’m finding it tricky to think just in terms of positives. There really is no positive that I can think of that doesn’t also entail, seemingly necessarily, a negative accompaniment. However, I’m going to just ignore the negatives for the time being, apart from inserting the word “negative” within brackets, every time one occurs to me, just as a way of making visible how inseparable the positive and negative really are.

Michigan not only has major sports programs, its sports programs are a large part of student and, to a lesser degree, faculty life [negative] at the university and in the city of Ann Arbor more generally [negative]. Probably the most important positive consequence for me, as a professor teaching courses on the cultural study of sports, is that students are interested in the courses and the courses are always full [negative]. In my department, undergraduate enrollments tend to be low, causing the central administration to constantly badger us. My courses in sports studies have helped to address this administrative issue to some degree. In addition to this bureaucratic benefit, I consider it a positive that the students are not only in class, but are passionately interested about sports [negative]. Finally, it’s common for varsity athletes to enroll in my courses [negative]. Their perspectives add a great deal to our class discussions, not least in that they and their classmates (who are generally fans of the university teams) must actually deal with each other in the flesh as human beings and peers [negative].

It took a good deal of restraint for all of you to not talk about the negatives of college sports. Clearly, you have a lot of concerns. Is there a specific problem that you’ve seen – as people who work inside universities – that the sports media on the outside generally miss?

David: If I had to pick one issue that seems to go unnoticed, it is the role of academic support in for-profit college athletics. Coaches and administrators often talk about academic support programs, ostensibly to demonstrate they care about the academic progress of the athlete. To folks on the outside, it seems to be a great thing to provide athletes with tutoring, advising, and mentoring. It’s a way for us to justify the so-called educational primacy of college sports while being conveniently blinded to what is really going on.

Candidly, most academic support programs for commercialized college sports programs are not about academic enrichment or advancement at all – they are primarily about eligibility maintenance, so that the athletes can stay on the field or court. In essence, the athletes’ lives are managed to the priority of eligibility and nothing else. This limits choice of majors, causes major clustering, and further isolates the athletes from the student body.

Many who work in athletic academic support are fine people, but their hands are tied. Their marching orders are to keep the kids eligible, lest they get fired. It is very tough to stand up to a coach who is the highest-paid employee on campus, if not the most powerful, and say an athlete is ineligible. Oftentimes, the advisor takes the blame. The current situation at the University of North Carolina concerning corrupt coaches, faculty, and advisors is unfortunately more common than not. The shock at UNC should not be surprising, given that situations like this are going on at most colleges that pursue big-time athletic glory.

Travis: Dave’s point about the UNC situation made me remember a particularly troubling moment in sports media, just this past December. Iowa’s men’s basketball team was playing UNC in Chapel Hill, and ESPN was broadcasting the game in prime time, with announcer/mascot Dick Vitale handling the commentary. Between his characteristic “dipsy-doos” and “diaper dandies,” Vitale briefly brought up the scandals at UNC and basically blamed it all on rogue advisors. He completely relieved the basketball program, athletic department, and coaches from any culpability. It was alarming to see ESPN put the blame on these academic advisors (I’d like to see their salaries placed next to those of the coaches and athletic directors) rather than critiquing a system that might encourage unsavory conduct to keep the team on the court and winning. I turned the game off and promptly took a shower.

The key point most people make when arguing against paying college athletes is that they receive a free education. But something that I’ve observed, which I’ve never heard any sports media commentators bring up, is that these athletes’ education options are limited. These folks are busy year-round. Some, for instance, simply can’t take afternoon classes during certain times of the year. I get the impression that athletes are dissuaded from majoring in subjects they might be interested in because, quite simply, it is very difficult to schedule courses around their team activities. This is not to say it’s impossible for an athlete to major in Biology or Physics. Some certainly do. But it is undoubtedly more difficult for athletes than for non-athletes. If the “free” education these athletes receive is as valuable as the education other students pay so much to get, as defenders of college sports argue, then we need to make sure there are no constraints on the academic paths they pursue.

Jack Hamilton (University of Virginia): I would second much of what Travis said. For all of the growing skepticism and cynicism about the NCAA in certain corners of sports media, I feel that the mainstream media as a whole is still largely credulous of NCAA party lines. People like Vitale – and this goes for too much of the ex-coach/ex-jock media contingent – are basically water-carriers for the establishment. They unfailingly stick to the standard narratives: coaches are molders of young men, student-athletes who buck the system or fall through the cracks are “troubled,” the system is fine, nothing to see here. Maybe it’s to be expected from Vitale, but it’s shocking to me how many professional journalists and journalistic institutions also seem to fall into this. Take, for instance, the “exposé” that Sports Illustrated published on the Oklahoma State football program in 2013. It was your standard scare story of rogue boosters and corrupted youth, with absolutely no interest in context or systemic failures in college sports.

As an educator, I’d also like more attention spent on the realities of academic life for athletes, as Travis mentions. I’m amazed by how thinly stretched some of my student-athletes are, even ones that aren’t in revenue-generating sports. But I also think there’s a real resistance in the media to showing how the sausage gets made, as it were. Sadly, I think the average college sports fan doesn’t care to know about it.

Yago: What I find to be negative about the dominance of sports on a campus like Michigan’s is not necessarily the importance of sports per se, but the prevalence of a deeply conservative, uncritical set of moralizing sporting beliefs, foremost among them the ideology of “amateurism.” Nearly every athlete I’ve taught who’s participated in a non-revenue generating sport has subscribed wholeheartedly to these ideas (except those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds). Almost all student-fans also buy in to these beliefs. Meanwhile, nearly every athlete in a revenue-generating sport has rejected these ideas.

Shaking these beliefs loose is one of the hardest (and in my view, most important) tasks that I face as a professor of sport studies at a place like Michigan. The difficulty is not just the tenacity with which students hold to this ideology, but also the divisions it creates (or exacerbates) among students in a single classroom.

Last year, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari compared the NCAA to the Soviet Union in its final years – a powerful institution that is crumbling. Has the NCAA lost its legitimacy as a governing institution? 

Yago: For me, in the classroom and outside it, this is fundamentally a political question. When we discuss it in the classroom, students (athletes and non-athletes alike) frequently voice complaints about the NCAA. It’s exploitative, inefficient, overreaching, hypocritical, and so on. Then they shrug their shoulders and say: “But what are you gonna do? They have all the power.” So long as we view the NCAA as “having all the power,” then yes, regardless of our opinions about the organization, they have legitimacy.

I try to encourage my students to complicate this view by distinguishing between the kind of power the NCAA holds and the kinds of power that they – my students – hold. The NCAA admittedly holds power over certain administrative and economic structures, but I want my students to see that they hold a kind of creative, constitutive power: They make the stuff – the athletic performance and the enthusiastic watching of that performance – upon which the NCAA’s power is entirely dependent. Then the question becomes: How do my students choose to use the power they have? To the degree that we take this last question seriously, we are actively defining, in practical terms, the degree of legitimacy we wish to grant the NCAA.

Jack: I agree with Yago on all of this. The NCAA’s legitimacy has always been tricky and fundamentally illusory, as Taylor Branch’s great work has demonstrated. It’s really just a question of power: Who has real authority and who appears to have authority? Of course, appearing to have authority is a pretty powerful thing. But in college football the NCAA’s real power is pretty negligible: since the schools and conferences negotiate their own TV contracts, the NCAA really just works like a vaguely-defined enforcement arm, almost a public relations shield against the various ethical conundrums that plague big-time college football. At the end of the day the NCAA is totally beholden to the schools it ostensibly “oversees,” but the image is the opposite, which works out for everyone. It’s pretty ingenious, really. But I do think its days are numbered (and how I do love Calipari for quotes like that).

Travis: I have found the NCAA to be a great way to teach my students the concept of hegemony and the cultural work it takes to produce and maintain hegemony. The NCAA is supremely successful in equating itself with college sports and suggesting that one could not exist without the other. I’m surprised, in fact, at how infrequently serious tests to its authority occur, since it seems that both individual players and schools could benefit from reforming how college sports are administered. They really don’t seem to have much to lose from testing an institution that only exists because of their collective participation and permission.

David: I also think that the NCAA has outlived its usefulness and a new governing body or bodies must emerge from the carnage. Things like separate organizations for different sports, full separation of schools that want to exist for profit, changing or even abolishing academic minimums are things that should be considered in the future. Even ideas outside the box should be considered, like adopting a European club sports model as an alternative means of sport development (full disclosure: this is my current research project). But the bottom line to me is that the current model does not work and the NCAA as an organization is ineffective and unmanageable.

Then what changes would you make to college sports?

Travis: That’s a big one. I can’t say I have any solutions to these issues that so irk us. But I can say that I think anyone interested or involved in college sports should work to cultivate a spirit of reform – an attitude which recognizes that the current system has many flaws, that it is not the only possibility for how college sports could operate, and that it can change.

Yago: In the spirit of Travis’ response, I would specify that all reform efforts should: 1) have as their first priority the interests and well-being of the college student who wishes to compete in intercollegiate athletics (which is seemingly obvious), and 2) include prominently the views of such students in all policy making.

In my view, nothing – not money, not coaches, not administrators, not alumni, not other students, not faculty, and not institutional prestige – should be placed ahead of this.

Jack: I would like to see professional leagues – the NBA and NFL, specifically – invest more money and energy into developmental leagues for top young talent. Obviously, a tiny percentage of college athletes arrive on campus as blue-chip soon-to-be-pros – something the NCAA is fond of reminding us, in their ad campaigns with the slogan, “Almost all of us are going pro in something other than sports.” But the fact is that this small talent pool generates so much value for the NCAA. People watch Duke this year to see Jahlil Okafor, much like they watched Duke last year to see Jabari Parker. It’s an incredibly lucrative arrangement for the NCAA to be a de facto minor league for two of America’s most popular pro sports. But I also think it’s part of what has made big-time college sports such an ethically rotten and exploitative enterprise.

David: I think any argument regarding the future of college sports must start with the recognition that the current model does not work and must be changed. However, we have a powerful organization, corporations, ESPN, rich people, smart people, and frankly the fan base that are all trying to convince themselves that college sports are something pure and that any change will kill it. When I hear someone say that they will turn in their tickets if players get paid, they are simply kidding themselves. They should turn in their tickets now, because college sports are not what we say they are. Amateurism in college sports is a façade and, candidly, a lie.

I think there are a myriad of things we can do. We could go completely commercial for some sports and completely educational/extra curricular for the others. I also believe that we need to have alternatives beyond the current educational model for athletic development. My current project on the European club sports system addresses potential alternatives. Having minor leagues is also a great idea, as I believe the NBA and NFL need to take on a greater role in player development. The Drake Group has an academics-first model for college students playing college sports that would likely force the NFL and NBA to take on a greater share – and the cost – of the development of their players.

Some other ideas include having different governance for the three divisions of college sports, and even different rules for different sports. It makes no sense to apply the same administrative rules to both field hockey and men’s basketball. We can pursue a limited anti-trust exemption to curb expenditures in college sport. We should also limit the amount of athletics budgets that are met by student fees and institutional subsidies. Another idea is to make education eligibility an option at the highest levels of competition. Let an athlete play football as a job and receive aid to go to school but impose no minimums on academics. This would lessen academic fraud and ethical conduct issues.

I could write so much more. But if we agree that what we’re doing now doesn’t work, we can actually save education and sport development in the U.S. There are great ideas out there, but we can’t pursue them if we keep trying to make the current model work. It does not. If we keep going down the same path, we will destroy ourselves.

 

Yago Colás is author of the forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Culture of Basketball. He teaches comparative literature and sports culture at the University of Michigan. Yago tweets at @YagoColas.

Jack Hamilton teaches media studies and American studies at the University of Virginia. He is a regular contributor to Slate, writing about sports, music, television, and politics. He tweets at @jack_hamilton.

David Ridpath is Kahandas Nandola Professor of Sport Management at Ohio University. He is author of the book Tainted Glory, which describes his push for reform as assistant athletic director at Marshall University. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Germany. Dave tweets at @drridpath.

Travis Vogan teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films, Pro Football, and the Rise of Sports Media in America, and the forthcoming book ESPN CultureTravis is on Twitter at @TV0GAN.