Athletics vs. academics – both sides
William C. Friday
Have college athletics become too important, in some cases overshadowing colleges’ primary goal? A wide-ranging report says yes, stirring debate in the media and on campuses across the country.
The Bad News is Hard to Miss
It is tempting to turn away from bad news. rib the cynic, corruption has been endemic in big-time sports as long as it has existed. To the rationalizer, reform is already under way and things are not nearly as bad as the critics make them out to be. More time is all that is needed.
But to the realist, the bad news is hard to miss. The truth is manifested regularly in a cascade of scandalous acts that, against a backdrop of institutional complicity and capitulation, threaten the health of American higher education. The good name of the nation’s academic enterprise is even more threatened today than it was when the Knight Commission published its first report a decade ago. Despite progress in some areas, new problems have arisen, and the condition of big-time college sports has deteriorated.
Consider as an example some simple statistics: 57 out of 106 Division I-A institutions (54 percent) had to be censured, sanctioned or put on probation for major violations of NCAA rules in the 1980s. In the 1990s, 58 out of 114 Division I-A colleges and universities (52 percent) were similarly penalized.
In other words, more than half the institutions competing at the top levels continue to break the roles. Wrongdoing as a way of life seems to represent me status quo.
That such behavior has worked its way into the fiber of intercollegiate sports without provoking powerful and sustained countermeasures from the many institutions so besmirched speaks for itself. It appears that more energy goes into looking the other way than to finding a way to integrate big-time sports into the fabric of higher education.
Under the influence of television and the mass media, the ethos of athletics is now professional. The apex of sporting endeavor is defined by professional sports.
This fundamental shift now permeates many campuses. Big-time college basketball and football have a professional look and feel–in their arenas and stadiums, their luxury boxes and financing, their uniforms and coaching staffs, and their marketing and administrative structures.
In fact, big-time programs have become minor leagues in their own right, increasingly taken into account as part of the professional athletics system. In this new circumstance, what is the relationship between sport and the university as a place of learning?
The ugly disciplinary incidents, outrageous academic fraud, dismal graduation rates and uncontrolled expenditures surrounding college sports reflect what many have rightly characterized as “an entertainment industry” that is not only the antithesis of academic values but is “corrosive and corruptive to the academic enterprise.”
In their book, The Game of Life, William Bowen and James Shulman of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation conclude that the skewed priorities of top programs have infected men’s and women’s sports at all levels, including, perhaps most remarkably, the ivy League and elite private liberal arts colleges. It all leads, they write, to a single conclusion: “Intercollegiate programs in these academically selective institutions are moving steadily in the direction of increased tension with core educational values and more substantial calls on the tangible and intangible resources of their host institutions. We cannot think of a single set of data that contradicts this proposition … We are unable to identify any forces inside the system that–without considerable help–can be expected to alter these directions.”
There is no question about who is winning this open, ever-escalating war between the academic and athletic cultures. In too many places, the tail already wags the dog. The continuation and possible acceleration of this development is a prospect that demands the engagement of presidents, trustees, faculties and higher education associations. The most glaring elements–academic transgressions, a financial arms race and commercialization–are all evidence of the widening chasm between higher education’s ideals and big-time college sports When the accretions of centuries of tradition and the bells and whistles of the modern university have been stripped away, what remains is the university’s essential mission as an institution for teaching, learning and the generation of new knowledge.
This is the mission that big-time college sports often mock and, in some cases, deliberately undermine. Big-time athletics departments seem to operate with little interest in scholastic matters beyond the narrow issue of individual eligibility. They act as though the athletes’ academic performance is of little moment.
The historic and vital link between playing field and classroom is all but severed in many institutions. Graduation rates for athletes in football and basketball at the top level remain dismally low–and in some notable cases are falling. While graduation rates for athletes subject to the NCAA’s more stringent eligibility standards effective in the mid 1990s are not yet available, we cannot ignore these facts: The graduation rate for football players in Division I-A fell 3 percent last year and 8 percent in the last five years. The rate for men’s basketball players at Division I-A institutions remained stable during the last year, but fell 5 percent during the last five years.
Graduation rates for both were already abysmal. The most recent NCAA graduation rate report reveals that 48 percent of Division I-A football players and 34 percent of men’s basketball players at Division I-A institutions earned degrees.
The graduation rate for white football players was 55 percent, while only 42 percent of black football players in Division I-A graduate.
Many defend the overall graduation rates of Division I-A football and basketball players because in some instances they compare favorably to those of the student body as a whole. Athletes are often admitted to institutions where they do not have a reasonable chance to graduate.
They are athlete-students, brought into the collegiate mix more as performers than aspiring undergraduates.
Their ambiguous academic credentials lead to chronic classroom failures or chronic cover-ups of their academic deficiencies. As soon as they arrive on campus, they are immersed in the demands of their sports. In light of these circumstances, academic failure, far from being a surprise, is almost inevitable.
(Excerpted with permission from the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report.)
by William C. Friday, President Emeritus, University of North Carolina; Theodore M. Hesburgh, President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame, et al.
Put Away That Broad Brush
The Knight Foundation Commission report oil Intercollegiate Athletics states that “the problems of big-time college sports have grown rather than diminished. The most glaring elements–academic transgressions, a financial arms race and commercialization–are all evidence of the widening chasm between higher education’s ideals and big-time college sports.”
But does the report paint a fair picture of the state of college sports? Not according to the NCAA Division II Presidents Council. That group claims that, by focusing almost exclusively on problems facing revenue sports in Division I, the changes and reforms taking place in other divisions are being ignored.
Intercollegiate athletics is often criticized in the media for eroding the values of higher education in that academic standards have been compromised, student-athletes have become athlete-students and are not a part of the student body and the escalating costs of maintaining successful athletic programs have become unmanageable. Suggested solutions have been a call for greater presidential control, academic reform and the reintegration of athletics into the educational mission of higher education.
These reports are shortsighted in that they paint a broad picture of intercollegiate athletics while focusing on issues associated mainly with Division I-A football and basketball at about 60 institutions.
A complete study of the 977 institutions in the NCAA would reveal that intercollegiate athletics is a healthy part of the educational program in higher education and that student-athletes are an integral part of the student body.
Consideration of student-athlete welfare and the interest of NCAA member institutions are the basis of all decisions made by the NCAA in order to ensure that each institution establishes and maintains an environment in which a student-athlete’s activities are conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational welfare of the student-athlete.
The members of Division II serve as an example of this commitment.
Division II is a dynamic and engaging group of colleges, institutions and conferences of varying sizes and educational missions. The Division II group is committed to an environment that encourages and supports diversity, values sportsmanship, fairness and equity, and places the highest priority on the overall educational experiences of the Division II student athlete in the conduct of intercollegiate athletics. About 11,000 student-athletes participate in intercollegiate athletics at 260 active NCAA Division II institutions.
The emphasis in Division II is to offer intercollegiate athletics participation to as many students as possible, whether or not these students are athletically recruited or financially assisted.
Many Division II student-athletes attend school near their homes and pay for school through a combination of scholarship money, grants, student loans and employment earnings.
Division II institutions believe that funds supporting athletics should be controlled by the institution and that the emphasis for an athletic department should be to operate within an institutionally approved budget.
In 1999, Division II developed a strategic plan to address major concerns of the division and establish priorities to focus the division’s effort and attention on the most urgent and important issues.
The Division II Statement of Philosophy was a constant reference as individual components of the plan were developed and each recommendation weighed carefully to assure its implementation would convert the philosophy into guidelines for the day-to-day conduct of Division II intercollegiate athletics.
Division II college presidents, faculty, athletic administrators, conference offices and student-athletes work together to ensure that student-athlete welfare is the division’s top priority.
Each institution holds its athletic departments and student-athletes to the same standards as the rest of the university. The goals under the student-athlete welfare priority include: Enhancing the student-athlete’s championship experience; increasing student-athlete participation in the governance of Division II; Reviewing the impact of Division II academic requirements; Improving the institutional environment for student-athletes by promoting a better understanding of the Division II student-athlete experience; Assisting Division II institutions and conferences in promoting the academic success of Division II student-athletes.
Division II is committed to the academic success of its student-athletes. Under the division’s long-range financial plan, the division established a degree completion scholarship program for student-athletes that have completed their athletics eligibility and are within 30 semester hours of obtaining their degree.
It also allocated more than $1 million per year for an academic support grant program, and recently established a project team to look at the method by which graduation rates are calculated for the federal report and determine whether it accurately reflects the graduation rates of Division II student-athletes.
As the division implements the strategic plan, a priority for the division is to monitor the Division II budget so the division continues to operate in a financially prudent and fiscally responsible way that advances the division’s strategic plan.
With federation of the NCAA governance structure, Division II has the opportunity to consider ways to simplify the Division II Manual and to ensure that regulations are consistent with the Division II philosophy. In January, the division successfully deregulated its amateurism legislation that ensures competitive equity among Division II institutions and the fair treatment of Division II student-athletes. Division II recognizes that an integral part of a successful athletics program is rules compliance.
To increase Division II membership use of NCAA compliance tools, resources and services and to make them more effective, Division II redesigned these tools and resources to meet division-specific needs. The division is committed to reviewing NCAA regulations that cause rules compliance issues for Division II institutions and conferences in order to assess what appropriate steps the division should make.
The Division II Presidents Council is committed to promoting diversity in athletic administration. To assist in this goal, Division II developed a grant program to assist the Division II membership in enhancing ethnic and gender diversity at the institutional and conference levels. Also important to a healthy athletics program are the involvement of the faculty athletics representative and the appointment of a senior woman athletics administrator.
To enhance these positions on Division II campuses, the division is redefining the roles of the Division II senior woman administrator and faculty athletics representative to assist with the higher expectations and increased support for these positions.
These initiatives demonstrate how intercollegiate athletics has enhanced the educational mission of higher education. Division II is not an anomaly in that NCAA Division Ill, which is comprised of more than 400 institutions, also has created similar strategic initiatives.
Intercollegiate athletics has not eroded the educational values of higher education. In fact, intercollegiate athletics is truly an integral part of a student-athlete’s educational experience and the programs offered reflect many of the values and missions held at these institutions.
by Patricia P. Cormier, President of Longwood College, chair of the NCAA Division II Presidents Council and a member of the NCAA Executive Committee.
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