athletics and academics

As I have made clear in the past, I am a Tar Heel fan. I am also ambivalent about the relationship between big-time athletics and academics.

Recent scandals here at UNC, Penn State, Syracuse, and more have raised the profile of concerns and criticism about college athletics.  Meanwhile–and in large part on a different track–various high-profile commentators including Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera have been arguing that revenue college athletes (men’s basketball and football) should be considered employees and paid for their athletic service, and even the NCAA has taken a tentative, baby step in that direction, albeit disclaiming the principle. My UNC colleague Richard Southall has recently written two columns that examine the likelihood that legal developments could mean universities will be forced to pay athletes as employees and consider how universities might implement such a change.

It occurs to me that the critiques of the current operation of college athletics are in some ways in conflict with one another. As a professor, I am concerned about pressures for academic double standards; academic misconduct facilitated by athletic-department staff; compromising academic quality in order to pursue athletic championships; privileging athletes over other students in distributing scarce resources like seats in popular classes; demands placed on instructors who have athletes in classes; and distracting university administrators and resources away from the pressing needs of academic missions. In other words: I worry about threats athletics pose to universities.

By contrast, the Branch-Nocera-Southall critiques are concerned about the demands placed on athletes; the difficulty they face balancing the demands of athletics with those of academic life; the physical and employability risks they encounter. In other words: They worry about threats universities pose to athletes.

People I’ve spoken to who more-or-less defend the current system characterize it sort of a grand bargain: universities consent to some degree of compromise of intellectual quality in exchange for positive links with fans and donors who aren’t otherwise connected. Athletes consent to financial exploitation and academic drudgery in exchange for opportunities for big-time exposure, possible high-paying pro careers, and some assurance that boosters will help them out if pro sports doesn’t work out for them. Non-athlete students and faculty consent to privileges offered to athletes in exchange for entertainment and school spirit.

Southall is by any measure a national expert in this area, and I find his critique of the treatment of athletes–and his expectation that revenue athletes will be classified as employees in the not-too-distant future–compelling (though the Euclidean geometry analogy is strained at best).  But unlike Southall, I am very worried about the implications of such a change. Yes, as Southall points out:

if such a quantum shift occurs, western civilization, as we know it, will not crumble; the sun will, most likely, continue to set in the west; and the Law of Gravity will still describe a jump shot’s trajectory.

Now, I can’t confess to having read as widely as Southall has in this area, but I haven’t run across anyone suggesting that these would be the negative results of (further) professionalizing college athletics. But I do think it will exacerbate the already-problematic amount of money involved in athletics and, by extension, the degree of academic compromise demanded by athletics. The athletic tail would be allowed even more to wag the academic dog, and that would be a bad thing.

Southall envisions a regime wherein revenue athletics would be “separate corporate entities,” but associated with the university in some way. They would contract with players, providing salary, contracts, lifetime health insurance, and education as a “benefit.” I’m not sure why education should be understood as a “benefit” instead of, as we now understand it, a sine qua non: The University of North Carolina does not employ as athletes people who are not also students. We also don’t do so for various other kinds of support, e.g., teaching and research assistants.

Meanwhile, “universities would still be free to provide non-entertainment athletic opportunities for students in non-revenue sports.” Would universities be allowed to charge for admission to these sports? How much admission before the sport would cross the line and have to be jettisoned by the university and moved to the separate corporate entity? This strikes me as an impossible wall to maintain. Would spectators be barred from women’s basketball, lacrosse, and track and field because these are to be “non-entertainment”?

Also, note: unlike the current professional leagues, many of the largest employers would be state government agencies, and the collective bargaining regimes for these are very heterogeneous across states, including some important ones (North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, and increasingly Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana) where collective bargaining by public employees is to a large extent illegal under existing or pending law. So I think some of the predictions and approaches are probably harder to implement than Southall expects.

How about a much more modest alternative: universities admit only athletes who meet true minimum academic requirements, and agree to live within reasonable practice and travel schedules that make being an athlete more similar to other things students do outside class (volunteer work, political activity, artistic endeavor, etc.). Universities provide adequate real educational services (not services to paper over deficiencies, but services to actually educate). To the extent that the athletics enterprise as a whole generates income above and beyond expenses, a revenue-sharing agreement allows athletes to collect shares of that surplus. This need not be enforced either legally or through the NCAA, but could quite reasonably be a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” pledge that universities sign.

These restrictions might ultimately lower the market price of DI coaches, which would be fine, and might also lower the overall quality of play, which would be fine.  I like Southall’s idea of education “credits” that athletes could bank and return to campus to use later, though I think in practice this is already often the case.

One of the critiques that has been raised is that athletes essentially must play in college in order to be noticed by the pros in basketball and football. College athletics, that is, functions as a de facto farm league for the NBA and NFL. By contrast, there are real farm leagues for Major League Baseball and hockey, which may account for the fact that these are less spectacular sports for colleges. Honestly, I don’t see why that’s universities’ problem. NBA and NFL are free to form their own farm leagues, and it’s certainly not in any university’s mission statement that we seek to develop athletic talent for professional teams.

My bottom line is this: I care far more about protecting the core academic missions of universities–major social institutions whose health and integrity I consider very important–than I do about protecting relatively few athletes who are themselves highly specialized, skilled individuals whose short- and long-term careers are not part of the university’s central mission. I think college athletics–revenue and not–can be a great benefit to universities, athletes, and non-athlete students alike, but I think the primary consideration has to be focusing on the core academic mission of the university.

Of course many universities do lots of things that are not in the core academic mission. They put on plays; they display art; they publish books; they maintain gardens and natural lands; they maintain radio stations; and more. The principles I’ve suggested here, I think, apply to all these other pursuits: they should be subsumed under the core academic mission and should not be allowed to drive or undermine that mission.

Go Heels! Beat State!

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

4 thoughts on “athletics and academics”

  1. Andrew,

    I think you have touched on a very interesting philosophical point. I agree that my position may, in fact, presuppose a focus on athletics and athletes. Even though I have criticized people for being trapped within a pre-ordained perspective on college sport, I may be guilty of looking at things from just such a perspective. I really appreciate your analysis and need to think at length about whether there is a way to incorporate some of your concepts to reach another end result.

    To your point about employment. I think universities do employ non-students in many capacities to provide services (as you point out). I think providing educational benefits for players is consistent with benefits available to other employees who are not students. The basis for providing the benefit is not the employee’s “student” status, but rather their employee status. I will have to discuss this with you further to get a better handle on the issues you’ve brought up.

    Look forward to continuing dialogue.



  2. Andy, I think you’ve missed some angles in your thoughtful piece. I say this as someone who is not a sports fan and finds all the sports emphasis confusing. But I did think about these issues a lot in the context of working with an undergrad who wrote a paper about these issues. The student started his paper with the idea that student athletes were coddled and non-academic, but ended with a very different idea of what the issues were.

    1. Some student athletes see a pro career as their major goal. But others see college athletics as a way to get a “free” college education. The former group tend to focus on how underpaid they are for the service they render. The latter group complain about a) not being given enough time to study or other support for their academics b) not being allowed to have a part time job or other access to pocket money, c) being hassled into taking “easy” courses rather than having an opportunity to get a real education, d) prejudice and discrimination by people who assume that athletes don’t care about academics.

    2. Big-time football/basketball schools vary tremendously in the selectivity of their admissions process. For some schools, the student-athletes are not that different from other students in their average academic preparation.

    3. Pro sports is using universities as a free minor league.

    4. The incentive structures for coaches are all about winning games, not about helping their athletes get educated. Schools that really want their student athletes to do well academically make this a priority and show success.

    4. There is a positive spillover from the athletic program to the academic program. Sadly (from my point of view), the visibility of the athletic program does feed into popular support which impacts alumni giving and public funding. My well-being as a faculty member is impacted by how well the sports teams do.


  3. the ncaa will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. even if court cases go against them, they will drag their heels. in a way, they have to. nocera and others who argue that big time college sports (men’s basketball and football, and maybe just maybe women’s basketball) players should be paid i think have an excellent point. maybe the best solution is to treat student-athletes (let’s limit for the sake of argument m’s basketball and football) as athletes first (minor league-ish, semi-proish) and give them the opportunity to be students if they so choose. for the vast majority who know they won’t be going pro, this is a boon. and they’ll be paid accordingly — maybe what we made as grad TA’s for most, and 50k, 100k or so for the top talent. following that, you can begin to disentangle a bit (but not sever) the links between the teams and the university.

    i don’t think this will work at all, though it might be the fairest to the athletes. why not? revenue. espn and nike and the others who make a killing off televising and merchandising *need* this to have the veneer of amateur college athletics with college spirit (go heels, beat state!) once it becomes acknowledged as semi-professionalized (as opposed to us all merely “knowing” it’s that already) then it will enter another realm, that of the real minor leagues. how many people watch the NBA development league games on espn 2, or arena football? no, espn loses, and college presidents and boosters and boards who are addicted to the revenue money for good (it builds a library!) or pedestrian reasons are loathe to give it up. all these parties will lobby hard — assuming the court case goes the way nocera thinks it might — to get college athletics an anti-trust exemption.


  4. “People I’ve spoken to who more-or-less defend the current system characterize it sort of a grand bargain: universities consent to some degree of compromise of intellectual quality in exchange for positive links with fans and donors who aren’t otherwise connected.”

    The thing is, these defenders get it only partially right. Big-time athletics do create fans out of citizens with no other connection to a university; what that is worth is a question that I don’t think has been sufficiently explored. What does this translate to in terms of benefits other than financial?

    And they do create *some* donors, but in the vast majority of cases those donors don’t offset the costs of the athletic program in the first place. Despite the claims, athletics are a cost, not a source of revenue, for most institutions, even in D1. A decent summary of the literature is here.


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