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Striking a Balance

The study released this week at the NCAA’s annual meeting showing that annual spending on sports by public universities in the six big-time conferences like the SEC and the Big 12 passed $100,000 per athlete raises some interesting questions that colleges and universities must address.

It is less what the large conferences – call them “pre-professional sport” — are doing than about the role that sports play in college and university life.  Sadly, the intimate connections among cable contracts, marketing and communication perception, and alumni support create a kind of perfect storm that no single institution of whatever scale can tackle individually.  With the weakening of the meaning of what John Feinstein once called “the last amateurs” in Division I sports, the time has come for the colleges and universities not part of the big conferences to determine a path that is defensible and sustainable.

The presence of students who are athletes on campus adds much to residential life both for the student and the college community.  Students who play sports learn to participate as part of a team, acquire time management skills, and are often most focused when they need to juggle their studies with their team commitment.  College and university administrators appreciate the connection that collegiate sports create with their alumni and students.  Donors are sometimes attracted to college athletics program, project, scholarship, and facilities needs.  A review of the “news” section of most college and university websites tellingly shows that sports updates — along with some news — fill up most of the college website.

Collegiate sports can often have a profoundly unifying affect on a college community, including to the college’s bottom line financially. As a president once noted to me, nothing increases a surge in t-shirt and sweatshirt sales more than a win during March Madness.  Further, recruitment of athletes who play sports can deepen the applicant pool, address gender issues, and expand geographic outreach, especially at Division II and Division III schools, and also at some smaller Division I schools.  As the retired president of Bucknell University, with its Division I sports programs, and as the former president of Washington and Jefferson College (Division III), I’ve witnessed first-hand the many benefits of athletics from an admissions standpoint.

At the same time, many college and university communities live in a world they wish existed.  Once sports were institutionalized with the formation of the NCAA, the fact is that few colleges will make it to the Rose Bowl without the kind of concessions made within an institutional culture that mimics how the schools in the major conferences behave.  It is a cautionary tale for colleges and universities that lack the financial resources, fan base, name recognition, and donor support necessary to imagine a role in big-time collegiate sports.

In the 19th century, much of the impetus to the creation of collegiate sports emerged from thinking about how colleges educated their students.  It was the right place to begin the discussion.  The argument that colleges educated for a healthy mind and body predominated.  This belief still factors into consideration during events like the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship competitions held annually.  The problem is that there has been a divergence in a common path.

At the highest levels of Division I competition today, athletes facing the pressure of pre-professional play, or the hope that it inspires, necessarily have a different collegiate experience than what is advertised in the university brochure.  For these students, college is a time to practice, prepare and learn under the bright lights.  While athletic directors also work hard to keep these athletes academically competitive, collegiate sports is no longer a game for amateurs.

The problem is exacerbated because the worldview of a Cecil Rhodes has split into two different paths.  The student who plays competitive sports travels down one path.  The athletic student – working out in the gym, running in marathons, swimming solitary laps in the pool, or enjoying the long bike run – follows the second route to “wellness.”  Both groups are athletes.

These two student groups are not mutually exclusive, of course, and interact regularly.  What is important in a collegiate environment, however, is how both groups are treated.  In a sense, it comes down to the institution’s mission and ethos.  Within an academic setting, boards, faculty, staff and students must determine whether — especially in light of tightening budget constraints – the mission of their college or university is to train students in mind and body.

Do the thousand teachable moments matter outside the classroom?  Is the mission to educate actually a mission to train or, at a more fundamental level, an opportunity for the students to explore and occasionally fail?  What does it say about a university when the facilities, notably for Division I athletes, are better than those for the athletic students who do not play competitive sports?  Can any university defend a $100,000 per student cost in light of the sea changes washing over higher education because of technology altering the way that students learn?  How many sports programs, at whatever division, can a college field without it impacting on the educational core mission?

What do you think?

About Brian C. Mitchell

Brian C. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College. He is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and director of the Edvance Foundation. Follow Brian on Twitter @briancmitchell5

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2013 by in faculty.
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