A Realistic Approach to Repairing College Athletics

•July 16, 2011 • 1 Comment

by TideGP (follow me on Twitter @TideGP)

EMail: checkyourgut@gmail.com

Call it tradition, call it sheer stubbornness, but there is a strong resistance to change in college sports.  Odd when you consider how universities in general pride themselves on their ability to innovate.  Whatever the reasons for this hesitancy, no matter how valid they may be, that doesn’t change the ugly truth:

The system is breaking down.

Detractors say athletes aren’t really students.  The stereotype is that college athletes don’t follow mainstream curricula–they take “dummy” classes, earn useless degrees (if they even bother to graduate), and that the whole notion of a student athlete is a sham.

Arguments have been made on televised “roundtable” discussions and in articles and blogs that collegiate players should be paid. That the obscene amount of money universities make off of sports qualifies college athletes as professionals. That usually provides a outcry from traditionalists, those that feel college athletes are amateurs and universities are first and foremost institutions of higher learning.  One can sympathize with the traditionalists because it does radically change the landscape of college athletics, formalizing what many feel collegiate sports have already become–farm systems for the professional leagues.  On the flip side, it hardly seems accurate to characterize the modern day college athlete an amateur either.

What strikes me as odd is while many sports analysts plead the case to treat college athletes as professionals, and academics say athletes should be compelled to mold into the student system and  pursue more stringent classes, rarely, if ever is the case made for the Universities to accommodate athletes more as students. 

Let’s talk academics. It’s an accepted premise that Institutions of higher learning offer curricula geared specifically for certain professions.  A student pursuing a specific career will declare a major and choose courses in subjects to pursue that career.  Most schools have curricula established for engineering, marketing, business, accounting, etc.  Furthermore, just as some students excel in certain subjects that endear them to pursue degrees in engineering, marketing, business, etc., some schools also excel at providing education in these areas. So while a degree in say, engineering from any school is a significant achievement, the best and brightest engineers generally attend and receive degrees from universities with a reputation for having a strong engineering department.  The same can be said for business, accounting, law—you get the picture. 

These same schools, let’s call them the Top Schools, are regularly recognized for the excellence of their departments in these fields.  You often hear of projects these Top Schools are engaged in, for example,  the sciences, and often these departments are the source for innovation in some specific field or for working closely with companies in the private sector to develop innovations—engineering, medicine, technology.  These same schools take great pains to keep these departments current, if not cutting edge,  adapting their curricula to reflect real-world advances and needs.

Why?  Because that research and innovation is big business—these industries are not only noble pursuits to benefit mankind, but they also garner huge revenues.  It makes sense. No one questions why a school with a strong sciences dept would work closely with the private sector to develop a new drug, or why a business school would conduct an economic study.  It’s expected.

Wouldn’t you be shocked to hear that a school with enrolled students pursuing a career in a multi-billion dollar world wide industry were not pursuing majors in that field because, they simply weren’t offered?  Of course you would.

That said, the glaring omission of most universities in their pursuit of offering curricula and all things academic to their student body’s needs, is their treatment of athletes as students pursuing a career.

Sports are no longer a pastime, they are a business.  They are BIG business.  Sports are arguably one of the more resilient businesses in America, in the world, today.

So, why are academia, the professional depts. and collegiate sports at odds? Why aren’t they embracing each other?

Why aren’t schools gearing curricula FOR the college athlete teaching the Business of Sports?

Think about it. 

Our institutions of higher learning recognize the sports industry for what it is, one of the elite, highest revenue grossing industries in the WORLD.

Majors are specifically offered for those pursing an athletic career; player management, player marketing, networking, merchandising, franchise marketing, franchise building, personal health regimens, sports history, sports commentary, etc.  Athletes have specific needs—they need courses in management that focus on high income, short term careers; life after sports, etc. 

Athletes are NOT the stereotypical dummies they are so often labeled as being.  A top athlete probably has a sharper innate understanding of say, physics than many physics majors because they don’t have to conduct experiments in a lab to see what happens, they see, they LIVE what happens and adjust to those factors on a daily basis.  How to maximize the distance a ball is thrown, judging trajectories to make a throw, or a catch. Just because they might not be able to give a PowerPoint presentation to explain it, doesn’t mean they don’t instinctively understand the concepts.   An athlete’s brain processes an amazing amount of information that is used in conjunction with their body to react with split second precision. It’s a specialty, and the better one is at a specialty, the less we expect them to know of other areas. You don’t expect a physicist to be able to cite accounting principles, you wouldn’t chastise an English major for not knowing algebra, so why expect athletes to discount their area of expertise and pursue others?

 I say CATER to the athlete.  Offer classes, courses, degrees they can USE in topics they have a vested interest in for their chosen career field.  If you offer courses  geared towards an athlete pursing  a career in the sports industry, I daresay the graduation rate, the number of athletes earning those degrees will increase.  I’m not talking Mickey Mouse courses, I’m talking about real studies of a lucrative industry with specific characteristics and nuances.  Courses that offer athletes options to work in their industry, participate in that industry even if their dreams of playing a chosen sport never meet fruition.

Imagine if part of a school’s recruiting campaign could be “We have the top Sports Development Department on the East Coast, the West Coast, the South”.  Imagine if top athletes had to struggle to choose a school based on the success of their sports program AND the sports curricula offered because it was something they KNEW would benefit them.  Stories of success “after sports” should not be an anomaly, they should be the norm.

Good luck convincing a five star recruit to commit to the arduous study time to, for instance, chemistry on top of all the time he spends practicing, learning plays because he needs a fall back plan for “after sports”.  BUT, offer him an opportunity to understand the nuances of professional and collegiate sports, to maximize his income, his potential, his SECURITY in his chosen profession—things he can relate to, concepts that relate to what he’s already doing every day and see what happens.  Offer the athlete insight on merchandising, managing others, contract negotiations, basic business studies.  Educate the second and third tier athletes on the opportunities in the business of sports, alternate ways to stay in sports, the industry they’ve devoting the majority of their lives to.  In the case of athletes that are pursuing majors in other established fields, give them latitude for pursuing dual degrees/careers.  Trickle this down to the athletes whose careers come to an abrupt end in college due to injury—give them options to finish their degrees and have a career in sports even if their playing days are done.

Bottom line, EDUCATE these athletes.  Give them sports industry skills they can USE, offer them the same opportunities to develop skill sets available to every other student entering a profession. It should be the goal of every university that EVERY student walk away with knowledge and bona fide credentials to pursue a career.  Sports are a CAREER and should be treated as such.   

It’s a win-win for everyone.

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