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Academics and athletics

April 27th, 2005

Via Rafe Champion at Catallaxy, I found this NYRoB review of a book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values on the vexed topic of sport in US colleges. Bowen and Levin view the US system, where colleges use all sorts of inducements to recruit students who will play in their sporting teams, as entirely deplorable, and spend a fair bit of time on its various pernicious effects, but don’t really seem to have much of a solution. The reviewer, Benjamin DeMott has a more favorable view, pointing among other things to the fact that sports provide a route to college for working-class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in, but doesn’t have a very effective response to the central point made by Bowen and Levin about the negative effects of a group of students who are mostly well below the average in ability, not academically motivated and are effectively employed full-time in their sporting careers in any case. Proposals to restore the ideal of the amateur student athlete have gone nowhere, and it seems unlikely that the radical approach of getting large numbers of colleges to pull out of the game altogether will do any better.

I’d like to suggest an alternative that is probably still too radical, but would not challenge the existence of college sports, and would overcome at least some of the problems aired by Bowen and Levin along with many others. College should recruit athletes as they do now, but let them defer all their classes for the four(?) years they play for the college team (unless they get cut earlier on). At the end of that time, a minority will make it into the professional leagues and big money, and won’t need a college degree. The rest will no longer have sporting commitments or the illusory hope of sporting riches. At this point, the college should give them their deferred education, with an explicit recognition that they are likely to need more help than the average student.

This seems like an improvement all round to me, but no doubt there’s lots of things I haven’t thought of, so I’ll let better-informed readers set me straight.

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  1. April 28th, 2005 at 01:42 | #1

    The US is so totally unlike Australia in sport it is unbelievable. When I arrived in the US I thought I would be signing up to play baseball and grid iron with the local town. There was just no town leagues like that. I was shocked. I thought it would be like the town where I came from that had thirteen grades of cricket, six of Rugby, three of Aussie Rules and a professional rugby league team that fed one in the ARL/NRL.

    I have a nephew (I married an American) who loved playing Grid Iron, he was in the high school team and was a good player. But he wasnt big enough to play college football. So now he doesnt play grid iron at all. Poor kid.

    Sport in the US is dominated by schools and “franchises”. For whatever reason, the US has not developed a strong social structure for sport. I dont know why not. Americans are as sport crazy as Australians are.

    The only sport I played over here that was even close to the manner Australian sport was organized was ice hockey. And that has a strong Canadian bent to it.

  2. roberto
    April 28th, 2005 at 08:37 | #2

    John – great idea. Perhaps sporting associations should do the same here, by forming relationships with Universities and TAFEs etc, enabling the young sportsperson to train and play their sport (professionally) full time without the distraction of study, and if/when their sport’s career is over, move over towards getting a skill.

  3. alpaca
    April 28th, 2005 at 08:58 | #3

    Hmm… I have no experience or knowledge of how university level sports operate in the US of A, but if what Cameron says is true, it sounds like the worst system ever. University should be about education and not about sports. Co-curricular activities should be present, but university should *never* be considered as some sort of ‘backup’ for those with insufficient talent to get into a major league team.

    Anyhoo: in an attempt to draw an unlikely parallel, this could be the sort of shift we see in sporting competitions if VSU is implemented in Australian. University sports programs will be cut, and the big money franchises might see a lucrative opportunity to move in. Obviously, it must be clear that the Howard government is being manipulated by the evil organisation that is the New York Yankees.

  4. michael.burgess
    April 28th, 2005 at 10:01 | #4

    Alpaca, I totally agree that Universities should be about education and not sport (whether they actually are is another thing). I am soccer mad but I don’t see why sport should be subsidised in anyway by the government. If they can’t succeed professionally without support they can go back to playing for fun. At the risk of being elitist, I think the arts, including the Australian film industry, are a different thing in that they do more to advance human culture than sport (even a graceful game such as soccer). Though, again whether much modern art is actually art or pretentious crap is another issue. Also are literary festivals where the majority take predictable stances on a range of issues (the Iraq war, etc) full of inspired thinkers or just radical conformists masquerading as intellectuals possessing deep insight?

  5. April 28th, 2005 at 11:10 | #5

    Cameron, where in the US is that? I play on a basketball team, a baseball team and an real footy team here in Seattle. I was able to find them with about 2 weeks of moving to the States. A couple of Aussie friends play in a cricket league as well. It may be more difficult in different parts of the States though.
    Michael, the university sports teams in the US make massive amounts of money for universities; they are not subsidised in anyway. At the University of Washington here in Seattle, they sell out $100 tickets for a 77,000 seat stadium every week. That’s a few million per game. Add to that television revenues and the reason they have sports becomes obvious.

  6. April 28th, 2005 at 13:13 | #6

    Andrew, Up in New Jersey. I ended up plaing Aussie Rules with the New York Magpies. Couldnt find a local baseball or NFL team. Started playing Ice Hockey down in Virginia.

  7. Guardian of the Faith
    April 28th, 2005 at 16:58 | #7

    The good professor’s argument is absurd. It advocates letting professional athletes play for universities while they are not students in any real sense. Instead, they are professional sportspersons with no link to the university other than that they play for the university team. Down the track they might do a degree if they need to or decide to. The end result would be universities running sports teams that have no relationship to the university. The potential for student involvement would be diminished further.

    According to the Australian newspaper (Opinion page in today’s paper) ANU Prof. Garnaut is recommending a flat tax of 30 per cent. One of the argument for a flat tax has always been that it removes the disincentive to earning a higher income. I’m not persuaded by this argument. And if the aim is to encourage people to work harder so that they earn more, why not tax the wealthy even less? Those on incomes of $20,000pa pay 30% tax, those on $100,000 pay 10%. Not only would people work harder so that they could earn more, fewer people would try to find ways of minimising their incomes.

  8. Gaby
    April 28th, 2005 at 16:59 | #8

    Nice post John and very sensible suggestion. Given that success in tertiary study is a lot about motivation, diligence and hard work, these are all qualities that you would generally expect to find in professional athletes. Therefore, one would expect such a programme to be succssful.

    Sort of formalizing what is going on in professional football and AFL now where players get counselling about life after sport and career options.

    Professional sportsperson: what a wonderful way to spend one’s young adult years!

    Michael, positing a dichotomy between “culture” and mere “sport” is as false as one between “high art” and “popular culture”.

    Sport is as “cultural” as any (narrowly construed) “artistic” activity and not to be diminished because it mainly relies on the physical, rather than the cerebral. Rather they are two different but wonderful aspects of human capability.

    And in relation to the Beautiful Game, what could be more artistic than to “bend it like Beckham” or Roberto Carlos, a dribble by Zidane or Ronaldinho or a goal by Henry or Ronaldo etc….

  9. April 29th, 2005 at 11:14 | #9

    Gaby, knowing many, many, *many* aspiring sportsmen-and-women at the ANU, I can say that you’re both right and wrong at the same time: They do exhibit a truckload of motivation, diligence and hard work in their sport of choice. The problem is they exhibit an equally awe-inspiring level of motivation, diligence and hard work to *avoid* doing any work at all at uni.

    Sport is great. Sport is fun. And sportspeople do provide a service in entertaining the populace (much in the same way that gladiators in ancient Rome hacked at each other for the audience’s general amusement). I would argue that sport is NOT a productive exercise, and encouraging it (say by offering scholarships to the sports inclined, as suggested by Professor Quiggin) creates a greater cost than by not encouraging it (say by offering scholarships to more academically inclined students, or even improving funding to the education system).

  10. Gaby
    April 29th, 2005 at 12:33 | #10

    Alpaca, interesting comments.

    On motivation to study, it may be due to specialization in sport to the exclusion of other potentially worthwhile activities. This may arise because one’s stock of motivation is limited and this limited supply is consumed by the physical, psychological and emotional demands of elite sport. After all success due to such “monomania” is not restricted to sport, but applies to all fields of human creativity.

    My point was essentially that after sport, many would apply these characteristics to their studies, which seemed to me to be John’s point.

    Also, study avoidance is not that uncommon a trait among students, at least when I went to Uni. I was lucky enough to attend in the ’80′s and I think I exhibited a not inconsiderable ingenuity in procrastination. I’m sure kids are much more conscientious now given the hefty fees they pay. I’d be very interested in the views of academics on whether this accords with their experience.

    I also hasten to add that my behaviour was not always caused by laziness, but based on a rational calculation that there were better things to do with my time than working on my essay or studying for an exam, such as training or playing sport, reading off the curriculum or for fun, going to the flicks on campus etc. I’m reminded of Rick in the Young Ones jeering “have you done your essays?”

    I don’t really understand what you mean when you say that sport is not “productive”. Surely not in economic terms as it is a huge industry.

    In particular, I reckon football (soccer) is the one true example of a “globalized” industry even to the extent of allowing the almost unconstrained movement of labour.

    Sport is far more than fun. I’ll refrain from quoting Bill Shankley. And it is definitely “productive” in a narrower sense as being good for a person to engage in it.

    I think your gladitatorial analogy is a poor one for sport and somewhat tendentious as it carries with it a pejorative or “non-productive” view of sport.

    On the contrary, I think all sport, and not just pro sport, is a development and exaltation of human capability. And pro sport defines itself by reference to evolving standards of excellence.

  11. May 2nd, 2005 at 00:39 | #11

    Alpaca, we had this discussion before. University should not be about education, education is the paying side effect of what universities should be about, which is scholarship in the broadest sense. Roughly speaking, learning, and research and preservation of knowledge. If people are willing to pay for the crumbs, great, but if you go into the crumb business in a fit of absent mindedness you end up losing what you were there for to begin with.

  12. May 2nd, 2005 at 11:49 | #12

    Gaby, Lawrence, first let me apologise. Looking at my comments earlier, I can see that they were not as clear as I would have liked them to be, and Gaby you are absolutely correct that the gladiatorial analogy is a poor one.

    Let me put it another way: The resources that are allocated to sport could be allocated (to what I consider) more effective and productive endeavours. With the state of university funding what it is these days, I feel *very* strongly that if any extra scholarships or funding are to be allocated to tertiary education, it should be available to all, and not just those that exhibit sporting prowess.

    Gaby is correct in saying that sport is a part of development and exaltation of human capability. I would argue, however, that a greater investment in studying in university and the development of thought is more valuable.

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