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Should Universities Offer Majors in Football?

I've been taking a brief respite from Carolina sports with the end of the basketball season, while I try to gather my thoughts on the past season and some larger problems with college athletics. Of course, it's a little hard to enjoy the vacation when Tar Heel athletics are popping up in editorials in the New York Times.

There's always been a tension in Chapel Hill over the commercialization of college sports. Dean Smith often criticized the NCAA for allowing beer commercials to be aired during college broadcasts. William Friday, UNC law grad and former president of the UNC system founded the Knight Commission to reform college athletics and is the leading critic of the professionalization of college sports. Nor is it a surprise that Taylor Branch, author of the Atlantic Monthly article on the NCAA that kicked off an ongoing discussion last fall about paying college athletes was a Carolina grad as well. UNC is the kind of place that would organize a lunch discussion about modern college athletics, and invite Joe Nocera, a New York Times columnist who has also criticized the current system to attend.

The result, however, was an editorial built around this quote from that lunch by Deunta Williams, one of the players suspended in the NCAA investigation of the football team:

Williams, however, had his own set of complaints. Athletes, he said, could only take the classes the athletic department wanted them to take. Coursework couldn't interfere with practice, of course. It was always better that the classes not be too difficult - otherwise, there might be eligibility problems. And one other thing:

"All the freshman football players take Swahili as their language requirement," Williams said. Why? Because the athletic department tutors are strong in Swahili. (In fact, 7 of 25 freshmen football players took Swahili in 2006, Williams's freshman year.)

Not mentioned in the piece was the fact the the chair of the department that oversees Swahili classes at UNC resigned his position over a plagiarism scandal involving another football player, or that the department came under criticism for enrolling Marvin Austin in a 400-level course the summer before his freshman year. Elementary Swahilil courses are, for some reason, 400-level classes.

Nocera sees the uptick in the study of Swahili as a sign of how universities are failing their athletes. "With their phony majors and low expectations, they send the unmistakable message to the athletes that they don't care what happens after their eligibility expires. It's a disgrace." His solution is to allow players to essentially major in football.

He puts it more artfully than that, analogizing it to dance majors, who spend four years studying dance, despite an equally small chance of making a living from the art as football players have of being paid to work on Sundays. But that shows a pretty big unfamiliarity with universities, I think.

First of all, such majors do exist, to some extent. There's a reason "Sports and Exercise" and "Sports Management" are among the most common majors for BCS football starters. I doubt you'll ever get a sport as blatantly defined as a major to the extent that dance is, though. Universities are slow to accept any new field of study, even one as lucrative as business.

The second point though, is that UNC is a liberal arts school, and even if such a football major existed, there is still the General College to be satisfied, and that includes a language requirement. So the players would still probably be taking Swahili, or another easy language. (Among the folks I knew, Portuguese was supposedly the easiest course to fulfill the requirement, and sure enough Art Chansky is annoyed because Williams got it wrong — his freshman year 7 new football players took Swahili while 12 took... Portuguese) So do the dance majors, and everybody else. And many students hated it.

But whatever you think of the merits of a liberal arts education, I don't think the answer is to shuffle athletes off to special classes though. Hold folks to a higher standard, or pay them, or sever big-time athletics from education entirely, but don't think that small tweaks and new majors will shift things in any meaningful ways. As long as there's excessive amounts of money and rabid alumni, there are going to be problems, and it will take a bigger restructuring to fix the system.

(For another perspective on the same talk Nocera saw, try this. Don't believe for a second that the tutors being proficient in Portuguese and Swahili is an unfortunate coincidence though. They're easy classes. There's nothing wrong with that; lots of non-athletes are taking the same courses because foreign languages don't interest them and they want to lighten their course load, but that's what they are. And I, for the record, took French 3 and 4. My GPA suffered for it, and ten years down the line, my French is horrible.)