Professor Roger Pielke Jr., a faculty member at the University of Colorado Sports Governance program, recently wrote a pretty solid opinion piece about the education of student athletes in a little rag called The New York Times.
If you’re not a Liberal Arts major or at a dentist’s office and don’t subscribe to The Times, let me sum it up for you: Professor Pielke’s general idea was that we, as a society, ought to cut the crap and just let college athletes major in the area of their sport. If that sounds like a no-brainer to you, congratulations. You’re not alone.
Three out of the four people that I asked while I had writer’s block agreed that making world class football players slum through a communications or history degree is a stupid, pointless charade. Let’s break down the reasons why:
1. Colleges aren’t elite seminaries anymore. The game has changed.
Hundreds of years ago, colleges existed to train the intellectual elites of society: first priests, then doctors and lawyers when it was decided that we ought to regulate the people who cut us open and get us out of jail. Sounds like big government to me, but whatever.
These days, though, colleges have become a one-stop “life-preparation” machine, standardizing hundreds of professions through academic training. You want to learn how to do (X), you go to college. Many student athletes (let’s limit it to the big televised sports for now) are there as a pathway into professional sports. Why are we making them major in something non-sports related? Wouldn’t they be better served focusing and studying how to excel at their chosen sport? Won’t that make better, smarter athletes?
It’s well known that schools do everything in their power to make academics for certain athletes basically a sham just to keep them on the field. One of my friends loves to tell the story of the history class he had with our starting QB. He was technically on a group project with the guy, and while the QB attended classes, anything that involved work or studying was directly handled by his team of tutors. The tutors emailed the other people in the group, met with them outside of class, and basically did all the QB’s work for him.
And you know what? I don’t care. That QB led our team to one of our best seasons in years and played some damn good football, which is what he was preparing to do with his life anyway. He’s in the NFL now, and I don’t think anyone gives a shit about his history grades.
2. How are sports different from music and theater, besides the money and legitimate interest?
Another one of Pielke’s serious arguments is why the hell do we give credit and allow people to major in music and theater but not sports? Performing at the college level as an athlete requires years of practice and training, supreme mental and physical concentration, and extraordinary talent. Those who reach the top of their field are every bit as exceptional as a master violinist or brilliant actor. And yet it is the general tendency of academia to view these achievements as somehow inferior and less worthy of praise and study. And that doesn’t make any sense, because the rest of the world has made it pretty damn obvious how much more it values sports than Shakespeare.
As much as I love watching one of the guys in my house sputter his way through a Chekhov play in a fake beard, we can’t get around how much interest and money collegiate athletics bring to their universities. As Pielke points out, it’s now normal for athletic programs to bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And the NCAA rakes in billions of dollars on playoff programming. This is a big business.
There are numerous majors and programs devoted to managing and profiting off of sports, but few that focus on the study of the sport itself for players. Pielke argues that allowing players to hone their understanding of their sports will lead to “better thinking and practice in sport.”
3. How to make it happen:
Here’s how something like this could become a possibility:
Pielke acknowledges that oversight would have to be placed on these programs to make sure nobody pulls a UNC and makes up a bunch of fake classes. The real program would cover sports “history, law, practice, and finance” essentially teaching college athletes how to navigate the professional world.
I propose limiting these programs to only the top athletes in the most prominent sports (a college swimmer or runner, for example, really does benefit from having a primary academic focus other than their sport). Lesser and less productive athletes ought to have a backup plan for when they don’t go pro. But for the elite players, let’s allow them to focus on what they are truly passionate about and help build the future of sports leaders, role models, and the people we watch to entertain ourselves at the bar after work.
Oh, somebody should also look into limiting the academic policing power of the NCAA at some point, too. That shit is Orwellian. You know what I mean..
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