Time to embrace the art and science of College sports



This month the NCAA penalized Syracuse University for a number of violations within its athletic department, including academic improprieties. The developments are just the latest in a line of athletics-related scandals that have plagued several institutions in recent times, including one at my own institution. The underlying contention in discussions of all of these misconduct cases is that athletics is \”other,\” \”extracurricular,\” or even a \”detractor\” from the educational mission of the academy.

Remnants of the pre-Civil War academic view that team sports are \”low and unbecoming of gentlemen and scholars\” remain. Coaches are generally not viewed as faculty. The expertise they hold and impart is not viewed as academic, and varsity athletes (unlike dancers, musicians, or thespians, who have similar educational structures) rarely receive academic credit for studying and perfecting their art, for athletics is not viewed as art, nor is it perceived as science.

At odds with this reality, the educational value of athletics participation has been clearly documented. For example, in a study by two researchers at Indiana State University designed to measure growth in seven areas thought to be indicative of future success, athletes performed at a higher level than nonathletes in almost every area. Probably for this reason, businesses such as Athlete Network and Game Theory Group have been formed to help make connections between former collegiate athletes and employers who actively seek to hire them, as many companies value the traits collegiate athletes embody, including competitiveness, ability to handle pressure, strong work ethic, team mentality, coachability, and confidence.

Yet despite the clear, quantifiable educational value inherent in sports as a stand-alone academic endeavor, it is probably too far a leap to expect this legitimacy to be accepted prior to building understanding. The idea of \”majoring in sports\” is considered preposterous by many, viewed as a way to help underprepared athletes remain eligible. A logical path to avoid this pitfall and bridge the divide between athletics and the academy is to provide traditional educational opportunities that build upon the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can come through participation in sports.

For example, athletes who enroll in applied exercise-conditioning classes that complement their training can learn about the science underlying their experiences. Athletes who take such courses can learn about the rationale for training methodologies, the physiology of muscle soreness, the metabolic systems that fuel different types of physiological demands, etc. The classes can be taught by current exercise physiology faculty members or by strength coaches who would be hired, evaluated, and valued as faculty members.

In either case, a clear curriculum with educational measures of learning would guide such academic courses. This slight enhancement to the current education athletes receive as they learn by doing could greatly enhance their educational experience. Courses such as exercise physiology exist \”across campus,\” and athletes can choose to pursue related majors, but it is a tremendous missed opportunity not to pair the educational experiences they are having with related curriculum. It is also a missed opportunity not to encourage collaboration, understanding, and integration among academic units, campus recreation (perhaps recreational- or club-sports participants could also register for the courses), and the athletics educators.

The example of strength and conditioning is just one in a host of opportunities for education drawing on the experiences athletics involvement can bring. Similar pairings could be made with elements of the science of elite performance (e.g. sport psychology, nutrition, athletic training, and biomechanics), the business of sports (e.g. event operations, licensing, journalism, marketing, economics, or finance), leadership, philosophy, sociology, history, or literature. A cross-disciplinary minor for those with interest might involve faculty from disciplines throughout the university.

Taken a step further, we could build upon the unique travel experiences our varsity athletes embark upon. Perhaps a U.S. history course could have a special section for those able to travel. Part of the course could include having athletes visit historical sites when their teams travel. The athletes fortunate enough to have this opportunity might see more than the court, airport, and hotel on their trips, and time away from campus could become time filled with rich educational experiences.

A few examples already exist of athletics integration throughout the university. Drake University, for example, under the direction of its visionary athletics director, Sandy Hatfield Clubb, has embraced sports as a platform for experiential leadership training. Leadership experts from across campus have come together to develop an effective curriculum with an experiential education requirement.

One such opportunity was undertaken by the football team in 2011. When the team traveled to Tanzania for a bowl game, the players built classrooms and orphanages with their on-field competitors from Mexico and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. That semester they also took an academic course taught by a member of the faculty titled \”Leading With Emotional Intelligence.\” About a third of NCAA Division I institutions offer some type of academic credit for participation in intercollegiate athletics, and another third offer courses designed specifically for athletes (most often freshman-geared life-skills courses).

Other institutions offer leadership training, seminars, or supplemental education without extensive \”across campus\” collaboration or academic credit for the athlete participants. The Richard A. Baddour Carolina Leadership Academy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one such program. Established in 2004, the academy guides a four-year progression of leadership development through interactive workshops, peer mentorship, and assignments.

As we grapple with the sobering realities that have undermined institutions as a result of athletics scandals, it is an appropriate time for us all to take a moment to examine our own perceptions. Rather than throwing stones at the convenient target as another athletics scandal is uncovered, let’s first take a look at ourselves and our biases about what fields are worthy of academic study. How different might many of our previous athletics-academic scandals have been had we valued athletics like we do the arts? How might a structure to encourage the academic study of athletics have affected our history?

Perhaps when we embrace athletics as a true part of the academy and build an academic culture and organizational structure that values education through athletics, we can foster the collaboration and transparency that have never fully existed between athletics and the academy. When we can assist our students in the pursuit of their passion through legitimate academic structures, as we do in every other discipline, the shame in college sports will subside. By embracing the art and science of athletics, we may have no more athletic-academic scandals because athletics and academics will be one and the same. Let’s take a first step by bridging the divide.

Author Bio: Erianne Weight is director of the Center for Research in Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill