Sports and Education during March Madness

If you’ve been keeping up with PUP’s March Mathness, you must have a much better bracket than I do. This year I chose to make my picks based on rankings and even took a little advice from ESPN commentators rather than doing my usual picks based on mascots and/or uniform colors. This has been by far my worst bracket ever. If I had made my picks mathematically with PUP or even based on school mascots, I bet I would have won this year’s pool. Tonight is the night, though- the final championship game.

Sometimes when I watch the games, I forget that the players are students like me- granted, they get national television exposure and I don’t. With all the press they receive not only from their own local media but national media like ESPN, it’s easy to forget that these players go to class and are in school getting a degree in addition to playing ball.

Besides the national exposure, there are plenty more differences between me and a recruited student athlete at a big time school. After tonight, the college sports world will continue with baseball and lacrosse season just to name a few prominent school sports, and these basketball players will head back to class- but what are the differences between the likes of Kevin Ware and me heading to class?

William Bowen, also author of Higher Education in the Digital Age, and Sarah Levin discussed these differences in their 2005 book Reclaiming the Game. From admissions into the school to grades in a class, the differences between a student athlete and a regular student are both vast and troubling.

Read below to preview Chapter 1 of Reclaiming the Game.

Chapter 1

IN NO OTHER country in the world is athletics so embedded within the institutional structure of higher education as in the United States. This is true at all levels of play, from the highly publicized big-time programs that compete under the Division I banner of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to small college programs that are of interest primarily to their own campus and alumni/ae communities. But to many sports fans, “serious” college sports are thought of almost exclusively in terms of Division I competition between highly skilled teams composed of students holding athletic scholarships. It is no surprise, therefore, that the ranking of the best and worst college sports programs introduced by U.S. News & World Report is concerned, at least in the first instance, only with play at this level.1

However, as both university presidents and readers of the sports pages know well, the public exposure these programs receive is not always positive: the extensive reporting of events such as the resurgence of Notre Dame football, the bowl championship series, and basketball’s “March Madness” is regularly accompanied by commentary on the “dark side” of big-time sports.2 In 2001 the Knight Commission published a second report calling for reform of Division I sports in stronger terms than ever before,3 and a week does not pass without one or more stories detailing some new recruiting scandal or lapse in academic standards, debating gender equity issues, commenting on rowdy behavior by athletes and other students, or speculating on the future course of the NCAA.

The academic downside of big-time sports has been recognized for a very long time–indeed, for at least a century.4 The generally unstated–or at least untested–assumption has been that all is well at colleges and universities that provide no athletic scholarships and treat college sports as a part of campus life, not as mass entertainment. The positive contribution of athletics in these contexts is emphasized on the sports pages of student newspapers, alumni/ae magazines, and of official publications, which, taken together, provide a generally healthy corrective to a societal tendency to emphasize problems.5 The director of athletics and physical education at Bryn Mawr, Amy Campbell, surely spoke for many dedicated coaches and administrators at such schools when she wrote: “College athletics is a prized endeavor and one that enriches the experience of college students. The question should not be ‘at what price athletics’ but rather how to structure athletic programs that serve both the student athletic interest and the greater goals of liberal arts institutions.”6

We identify strongly with this pro-sports mindset and cannot imagine American college life without intercollegiate teams, playing fields, and vigorous intramural as well as recreational sports programs. But we are concerned that all is not well with athletic programs at many colleges and universities outside the orbit of big-time sports. One of our principal concerns is that widely publicized excesses and more subtle issues of balance and emphasis may undermine what many of us see as the beneficial impact of athletics. “Save us from our friends” is an old adage, and it has real applicability here. Zealous efforts to “improve programs,” boost won-lost records, and gain national prominence can have untoward effects that may erode the very values that athletic programs exist to promote–as well as the educational values that should be central to any college or university. From our perspective, the challenge is to strengthen, not weaken, the contribution that athletics makes to the overall educational experience of students and to the sense of “community” that is important not only to current students but also to graduates, faculty members, staff, and others who enjoy following college sports.

Click here for more of chapter 1.