March 05, 2003
A different view of college athletics

Eric McErlain points me to this piece by Eugene Volokh about how to reform college athletics. It's a pretty radical idea, suggesting that for most college athletes, the education they're there to get is in athletics, so why not acknowledge that and act accordingly?

Why should we be demanding that athletes who are getting an education in athletics pass muster under academic standards, or for that matter engage in academics at all?

Say that tomorrow the system of legal education magically changed, so that the overwhelming majority of top law schools -- the feeder institutions for law firms -- required all their students to do well in athletics: run a mile in no less than 8 minutes, bench-press at least X pounds, and so on. We'd think that, first, this system isn't very rational, because it disqualifies some people who'd be fine lawyers, and imposes serious burdens and distractions on others; and, second, it's unfair to the law students -- if you have a first-class legal mind, but fifth-class athletic skills, why should you have to do what you can't do well, and what you don't like trying to do well?

The same, I think, applies to college athletics (with some distinctions that I'll mention shortly). College athletics is an educational program -- it teaches athletes to be better athletes. An athletic department at, say, the University of Oklahoma (I'm picking a school arbitrarily here) probably provides a very good education in some athletic subjects. But what if some potential students in that school are (1) dumb as posts, or are (2) not at all interested in academics? Why should they be effectively denied an opportunity to study the subject of their choice (football) at this school because they're not good at other subjects (math, English, etc.), any more than a law student should be denied an opportunity to study the subject of his choice (law) because he's not good at other subjects (football)?

The solution, then, is simple: Each university may have a School of Athletics that can select students based solely on athletic skills, and may demand only (or overwhelmingly) athletic studies and achievement from them, just as a conservatory may select students based solely on musical skills, and may demand only (or overwhelmingly) musical studies and achievement from them. (I imagine that many conservatories also have serious academic components, but we wouldn't think there's anything outrageous if they let in brilliant musicians with lousy SATs and high school grades, or even if they decided that there'd be no academic criteria for continuing one's musical education, no matter how awful one is at other subjects.)

The comparison to a conservatory is an interesting one. One of the arguments that has been used in favor of Division I athletics at Rice University is the presence of the Shepherd School of Music. Opponents of athletics complain that most athletes don't meet Rice's stringent entry requirements, and with a small enrollment that means they're taking slots that should have gone to someone who does meet those requirements. Supporters point out that the same thing can be said for music students - they have a different standard for admission that's not as high as the one regular students face. If you see athletes as being in a similar class as the music students, then this sort of anti-athletics argument is diminished.

I find Volokh's logic to be pretty compelling, and I only have one fairly minor objection. Regarding his suggestion about letting athletes get their academic or vocational education elsewhere, I think that might turn out to be an unexpected cost for some schools. After all, the marginal cost to UCLA of letting a few football players sit in on one their own classes is pretty minimal, but if they have to pay tuition for those same athletes to attend a vocational school, that's real money out the door for them. For schools that are in budgetary distress, that could be a killer.

(On the other hand, schools already invest a lot of money in tutors and other supplemental help for their scholarship athletes to ensure that they stay academically eligible. The theoretical cost of sending a few players to the local ITT Tech is likely to be more than offset by the real savings of slashing some or all of these support programs. Someone will have to run numbers on this.)

There are other details to consider, such as continuing to enforce "scholarship" limits so we don't return to the bad old days of large schools hoarding talent, but nothing that I can think of that can't be made to work within this framework. Of course, Volokh's suggestion will be taken up for consideration shortly after Jerry Falwell moves to Vermont and marries George Will, but that shouldn't stop us from talking about it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 05, 2003 to Other sports | TrackBack

Why not create a professional school of
Athetic studies? Like the Hotel/Restaurant
school at UH or the music industry majors at
Nashville? There are unique issues for professional athletics - business, medical, legal as well as specific requirements for those who work in these businesses in the front offices. Even groundskeeping could be taught (maybe at A & M?).

Posted by: ellana on March 5, 2003 12:48 PM

I think that would be well within the spirit of what Prof. Volokh proposed. Obviously, it would be a better fit for some schools than for others. A side benefit might be that non-athletes could be allowed to take classes from such a college.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 5, 2003 2:26 PM

On the other hand, only a fraction of college athletes (even in football and basketball) ever make an official dime off their abilities. If law schools routinely brought in ten times as many students as were able to work professionally (come to think of it, they might) it would be a good parallel. If 90 percent of the graduates of the School of Music wound up working in meatpacking in between playing for quarters on street corners, it would be a good parallel.

To be fair, this is because of the way professional football and basketball are set up, where the "entry level" jobs are the college sports programs. But I don't think this would get rid of that problem.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on March 5, 2003 5:22 PM

I think it could be argued that liberal arts colleges routinely bring in a lot more students than the market for philosophers and historians can handle, but your point is valid nonetheless. I suspect that's why Volokh had the bit about allowing athletes to attend classes at other schools.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 5, 2003 7:10 PM

The idea of a School of Athletics does in fact exist in England. The University of Bath has such a school where athletes are trained to perform at a higher level. In fact, their soccer team was the first university side to make the first round of the FA Cup (England's knock-out competition)since Oxford University in 1880. Most members of their side did in fact train with professional teams in England before going to Bath to persue their educations.

My point is this: What you are saying makes sense, especially when I know there was one basketball star that scored 480 on his SAT on the same day I took the test, yet he got a full ride to North Carolina State, while I got stuck at Hunter College in NYC. This would be a prime example where, to quote the late Arthur Ashe "If you can't get 700 on your SAT, you shouldn't even be in college in the first place" on a pure academic level, however, he would be a perfect candidate for a School of Athletics.

Posted by: William Hughes on March 6, 2003 8:46 PM