The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
A team with a star player is a good team, but a team without one is a great team....  ...anonymous.
Commentary of the Day - April 29, 2000: It's Time to Reform College Athletics.
The Irascible Professor is pleased to see that there has been a recent resurgence of interest in reforming college athletics.  Corruption in college and university athletic programs in the United States has been endemic for decades.  Hardly a week goes by without notice of another college or university being sanctioned or disciplined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for violations of its oft times confusing and arcane rules.  Corrupt practices in college and university athletic programs mostly fall into two distinct categories -- monetary corruption and academic corruption.  The media generally pays more attention to problems involving monetary corruption than it does to corrupt practices on the academic side.  However, some people in academia are beginning to ask questions about the corrupt academic practices associated with college and university athletics.  These academic abuses can take many forms, but the outcome usually is the same.  The so-called student athlete either never earns a degree, or else earns a degree that provides him or her with little preparation for a career outside athletics.  The overall effect is that many athletes -- particularly those recruited to participate in major sports such as football and basketball -- end up without the education that they have been promised.  Far too often these athletes come from the ranks of the severely disadvantaged.  Instead of receiving a transforming experience in college, they leave even more disadvantaged.

The National Alliance for College Athletic Reform (NAFCAR) recently met in Des Moines, Iowa to consider proposals that would reduce the level of academic corruption in college athletics.  The founder of this group is Jon L. Ericson, former provost of Drake University, and the current director of the alliance is Murray A. Sperber, professor of English and American studies at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.  Sperber is the author of College Sports, Inc. and Onward to Victory - The Crises that Shaped College SportsIn the latter book Sperber notes that relatively few college and university athletic programs are self-supporting.  Fewer than 30 actually bring in enough money from ticket sales and television revenue to cover their costs.  All the remaining programs lose money, and must be supported by money drained from the academic budget.

The recent NAFCAR conference produced the following working paper:

College athletics has been transformed into a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that has compromised the academic mission of the university. To restore academic integrity, to fulfill our obligation as faculty, and to protect the welfare of all students, we propose that:

1.  Faculty and administrators abandon the use of the term "student-athlete".  Students who participate in athletics shall be referred to as students, or athletes, but not "student-athletes".

2.  Faculty senates oversee and control the academic counseling and support programs for athletes, and universities shall remove control of these functions from athletic departments.  In addition, universities shall provide academic support for all students, and abandon the practice of providing academic support on the basis of athletic status.

3.  Universities publicly disclose the academic major, academic adviser, courses listed by academic major, general education requirements, and electives, including course GPA and instructor for all students. No individual's grades will be disclosed.

The university will disclose for each intercollegiate athletic team the courses enrolled in by team members, the average of the grades given in the course, and instructor of the course at the end of the semester.

Because the Buckley Amendment is invoked to prevent academic accountability, disclosure may require a challenge to the amendment and to the way universities interpret it.

4.  Universities reduce the number of intercollegiate athletic contests.

5.  Universities eliminate "athletic scholarships" while expanding the availability of need-based aid. Until such time that scholarships are eliminated, faculty senates should ensure that athletes who face contradictory demands from coaches and faculty can defer to the latter without losing financial aid.

Recommendations 3 and 5 would, in the opinion of the Irascible Professor, go a long way towards eliminating the abuses prevalent in college and university athletics today.  They would help preserve the positive aspects of intercollegiate athletics, while returning these sports to a truly amateur status.  To these five proposals, the IP would add a sixth.  Namely, that colleges and universities should not be allowed to recruit individual athletes to their programs.  In other words, all participants in college sports ought to be "walk-ons" who are students first, and athletes second.

The IP realizes that those 20 to 30 institutions of higher education that actually make money from their athletic programs, and perhaps another hundred or so that feel that they ultimately derive economic benefit from their academic programs are likely to be very unhappy with these proposals.  In those cases, he is willing to go along with the suggestion of Jerry Pyle, who is a professor of physical education at Concordia College.  Pyle's proposal would allow colleges and universities to own minor league sports teams.  The players would be paid employees of these teams, and would not be required to attend classes.

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