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A modest proposal for college sports

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It would help everyone if we could just tell the truth.

Credit: Paul Cleary

The trouble with college sports in the modern era is that the one thing we could do to most effectively address all of the ethical problems associated with them is the one thing no one is really interested in trying: Telling the truth and responding to reality.

It seems important to begin with the recognition that no one planned things this way. If we were starting from scratch, it would never occur to anyone to step into a meeting and propose the following:

  • Let’s use elite educational institutions to supply the NFL and the NBA (and to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball) with a no-cost minor league system that helps them evaluate who is and is not professional material.
  • The fencing, gymnastics, lacrosse and volleyball teams will be very expensive but won’t draw big crowds. Let’s have them travel all over the country, and have the football and men’s basketball teams pay for it.
  • Let’s not only televise games between college kids, let’s make television and athletics apparel revenue a major component of the financial portfolio of many university budgets.
  • In exchange for funding our entire athletics department, we will give football and basketball players the same tuition, room and board, plus some living expenses that we give to every other scholarship athlete.

This is where we are in 2017, but it’s been a process of evolution, not design. It seems likely it went something like this:

  • American colleges picked up on the habit of American high schools of incorporating athletics into the curriculum, both for the health of the student body and for the shared sense of community they create. In the beginning, students were drawn from the general population of admitted students, and the competition was among amateurs in the truest sense of the term.
  • Alumni took an interest in the games, and schools discovered that successful sports teams can be a major element of binding students to their alma maters well beyond graduation.
  • Competitiveness inherent in human nature and a desire to develop and deepen the positive cultural impact of sports began to rise, and along with it, pressure to ensure that school teams have the athletic talent needed to be successful against their peers.
  • In response to that pressure, students began to be recruited and admitted in significant part based upon their athletic ability, and scholarships soon followed (athletics scholarships were at least purportedly need-based until 1950).
  • Somewhere along the way, it occurred to someone that you could defray the costs of athletics programs by selling tickets to the games.
  • The football and basketball games were well attended and often sold out.
  • Turns out you can sell concessions at these things, not to mention the occasional T-shirt.
  • TV was invented.
  • It dawned on someone that there were more people interested in watching these games than there were available tickets. So they started putting games on TV.
  • TV’s became affordable for even relatively poor American households.
  • College athletics became more competitive, and more popular, than anyone ever imagined.
  • The money generated by football and men’s college basketball became infinitely bigger than anyone ever imagined.
  • Nike happened, and the intersection of college sports, television, and the marketing of sneakers happened with it.
  • As the money surrounding college sports rose, the pressure to succeed expanded well beyond the boundaries of the mere pride of alumni and into the fundamental economics of operating a modern university.
  • Those economics require the admission of elite athletes, whether or not they have been adequately prepared and equipped for success at a major university.
  • Demand for revenue sport success became even greater when it became the case that not only the major revenue sports, but also the college sports drawing minimal audiences, required constant travel, recruiting, posh facilities, and well-paid coaching staffs, none of which have independent means of financing.
  • Because of the phenomenal success of college sports, the NBA and NFL have never had to make more than minimal investments in minor league systems.
  • Because the NBA and NFL have minimal minor league systems, elite football and basketball players have few realistic options outside of college athletics to attempt to reach the highest levels of their sport.

So here we find ourselves. It’s no one’s fault exactly, and we could do without a lot of the unspoken guilt that underlies some of our reticence to face the issue honestly. But here is the reality: on every college campus that competes in Division 1 athletics, there are student-athletes who, but for their proficiency at a varsity sport, would never be admitted to the universities they are attending. And because of the monetary incentives associated with the revenue sports, the “stretches” are likely to be even bigger for elite football and basketball players.

Let us hasten to add what should go without saying: not every student-athlete requires help with admissions. There always have been and always will be people who are both elite-level athletes and elite-level students – but good luck building an entire championship roster consisting of them.

Even with respect to students that do get admissions help, it is a disservice to play on the “dumb jock” stereotype; many of them work very hard to take advantage of the academic opportunities they’re given and are able to handle university-level work. But not all of them.

Here’s another truth: there are people whose greatest talent is playing a sport at an elite level who come from difficult personal, family, and/or educational circumstances who are not, and cannot magically be made to be ready for real college academic work.

Some think that the solution to this problem is straightforward: universities should get out of the sports business altogether. They should be in the education business, and the education business alone. If we’re going to have college sports teams at all, they should consist only of participants who were admitted under ordinary academic admissions criteria. This view has the merit of logic and consistency. The problem, of course, is that it is simply never going to happen. The monetary incentives for universities are the biggest reason, but there are cultural elements as well.

Sure, you can have a terrific school that doesn’t participate in competitive sports. But you can’t have Notre Dame. Or North Carolina, Duke, Texas, Stanford, Clemson, or any of a much longer list of schools at which elite athletics (and not just the ones that make money) are part of what the school is.

This leaves us with an ethical problem that to date has generally been handled by pretending it doesn’t exist: what do you do with a kid whose athletic gifts so greatly exceed his academic ones that his path towards developing his talent is potentially cut off by the reality that, as a student, he’s not ready to do the kind of work necessary to survive at a major university?

The conventional argument is that it is wrong for a university to exploit the athletic talent of a kid who isn’t college material. It is viewed as a cynical bargain: the school is content to put him on a field and reap the financial rewards associated with athletics success he helps bring but cannot even provide him with a real college education in return.

Is it really so simple as that?

Assume for the moment that every university with an athletics program that could benefit from the kid’s athletic talent (and help him towards his maximum athletic potential in the process) declines to allow him to attend because they all agree that it is unethical to accept underqualified students (stop snickering).

What happens in this scenario is worse for everyone: college athletics (and the TV networks and shoe companies and so on) never see the kid’s talent, his path towards developing his ability beyond what is available at the high school level is limited at best, and – here’s the clincher – this does nothing to improve the kid’s academic profile, and actually harms his prospects in life.

Which is why, if we were willing to simply be more honest about what major college athletics has become, we could handle these scenarios far better than we do today. Specifically, recognize that elite athletes come from a spectrum of academic backgrounds, from honor students with realistic prospects of reaching the highest peaks of academia, to just-getting-by, to downright depressing. What if, rather than maintaining a pretense that they’re all the same, universities were expected to meet every student-athlete’s academic needs where they stand, wherever that may be? To quote UNC alumnus Caleb Pressley in an underappreciated blog:

Do you think if a kid can’t read, we should 1) bring massive media attention to it and thereby humiliate the athlete in question, or 2) teach them to read? Would it be impossible for our University to offer athletes who are unable to succeed in advanced classes—by nature of their lower entrance scores and less glamorous academic backgrounds—the attention and academic programs that might be more suited for their level of learning? . . . Is it unreasonable to believe that athletes pursuing a regular full degree and athletes pursuing some type of lesser degree could coexist on the same football team in order to make millions of dollars for our University?

Of course we would prefer a world in which every great athlete came with an equally great academic resume. So long as we’re living in this world, however, wouldn’t research universities better serve athletes who are weaker students by working towards ensuring that all of them are better off academically and better prepared for life at the end of their time in school than they were in the beginning?

Wouldn’t it mean a great deal more for a kid not ready for true college academic work to finish his athletics eligibility considerably closer to being ready than he was when he started (and with an open invitation to attend when and if he becomes ready), rather than go through extraordinary contortions with little real purpose beyond preserving eligibility as long as possible in an otherwise hopeless situation? Wouldn’t that be a better thing to return to an athlete who in his area of greatest strength can contribute so much to the school?

Different universities would vary in their willingness to provide the kinds of remedial education that might be necessary if this idea were adopted. Some would invest in it heavily, others would, rightly or wrongly, view taking those steps as tarnishing the school’s reputation for academic excellence. They should all be free to embrace or not embrace these programs as they see fit within their academic mission.

For the foreseeable future, though, it seems likely that we will continue on the current path: underqualified students will be admitted because they are fantastic at a sport, and schools will essentially act as if those students are as prepared for academic achievement as anyone else admitted under far stricter standards when everyone involved knows better.

This pretense, whose sole benefit is to preserve the self-images of universities who prefer to pretend that major college sports are something different than what everyone knows them to be, creates bad incentives, bad education, and inflicts its greatest harms on students from the most difficult backgrounds.

It doesn’t have to be this way.