Wednesday, October 26, 2011

B.A., Sports Performance, University of Florida*

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post proposes a very different reform for college sports: Allow athletes to major in "Performance of Sport," building around participation on the team a (hopefully) rigorous curriculum looking at history, law, ethics, policy, and business of sports. Jenkins discusses her proposal on a Slate podcast. Sports, she argues, should be like drama or music or dance or art, all of which are accepted as intellectually and academically worthy enough to be integrated into the life of the school. All are pre-professional majors--athletes (at least stars in top-level football and men's basketball programs) are in college to prepare to be professional athletes, just as theatre majors are in college to prepare to be actors.  The similarity extends further in that, like athletes, theatre or music students bring unique extra-academic talents to the mix and spend significant time outside the classroom practicing and honing those skills. A further similarity is that all come to a school less for the school than for the person at the school (a coach or a particular cello teacher) and may be tempted to change schools if that person leaves.

This is an interesting idea. Arguably, major basketball and football schools already do a poor-man's version of this with majors such as "Leisure Studies," although these do not go the full step of awarding academic credit for playing on the team. But is Jenkins right that this would eliminate much of the corruption in college sports? Under her model, "the worth of an athletic scholarship would suddenly be clearer. We could stop worrying about “exploiting” athletes and whether to pay them. Yale drama undergraduates don’t get a cut of the box office — their recompense is first-rate training for the stage. They aren’t exploited. They’re privileged." Jenkins makes a slightly different point that I also agree with: We actually treat student-athletes worse than regular students (including students in performance majors) by not allowing them to work, to perform professionally away from school, make money off their images, etc.

The devil is in the details, as Jenkins recognizes in the Slate conversation. First, I am not sure this takes away the pressure to share the money with athletes (at least football and men's basketball), which still make money and produce fame and recognition for the university. That we are forthright that the students are majoring in being athletes does not change the fact that they are making money for the school and may want a piece of it. And the analogy to theatre or music breaks down because those departments are not connected to billion-dollar television contracts. Are players going to be any happier that they are receiving scholarships but no salary to be football players than that they are receiving scholarships but no salary to be Leisure Studies majors?

The big risk is that some universities would not take this major seriously, that it would be a series of gut courses that will allow student-athletes to slip by without having to do any real work. This somewhat ties into the fact  that many athletes are less prepared for college than their classmates and that schools typically give more admissions leeway for athletes than for cello players. So how easy would it be for some schools to create a major to further protect (and keep eligible) its more academically marginal players.  On the other hand, all departments have such courses that all students in all majors take advantage of (at Northwestern, there was a basic statistics course in the Math Department nicknamed "Math for Medill," for all the journalism majors using it to satisfy a requirement). And athletics is not the only area or reason for which such admissions benefits are provided.

Jenkins said she has received many responses from university professors who like the idea. It will be interesting to see if the idea catches on. Thoughts?

* I picked UF at random; not trying to pick on anyone.