Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Higher Education? Part III: Athletics Away!

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus save a lot of vitriol for the athletics arms race, a billion-dollar industry that does little to pay for itself. The argument against college athletics is not new. How the authors present the arguments are new (to me, at least). While the NCAA and colleges boast about how sports like basketball and football increase opportunities for minorities, really, the authors argue, it is white, middle- to upper-class students who benefit because the majority of sports are things like rowing, gymnastics, swimming, fencing, hockey, wresting, bowling, etc. Not exactly hotbeds of racial, cultural, or economic diversity.

They also, rightly, attack the money spent on new athletics facilities such as stadiums, workout rooms, devoted study halls, tutors, etc. They question the sanity of expecting students to train full-time and study as well. They wonder why teams need to travel thousands of miles for games. They lament the exorbitant pay of coaches, even at lower-tier schools.  The authors do a truly excellent job of showing that football does not, in fact, increase alumni loyalty or giving rates. Title IX did not, in fact spell the doom of college wrestling teams (football did). For me, this chapter was really convincing that sports have to go. And I started college as a student-athlete, have coached student-athletes, and generally am very sympathetic to sports being available for everyone.

And there lies the rub: at these schools, sports isn't available for everyone-only the chosen few. While many Division III schools have an open-door policy on team membership, often because of budget or league restrictions, only the truly best make the teams. And because of the intense focus on NCAA sports, inter-mural leagues falter for lack of funds. Those are places where students can, in fact, participate, meet new people, let off steam, and stay healthy. There's another area where it is unclear if college sports really do more harm than good; uninsured students being injured playing sports and then cut lose.

I want to come back two hypocrisies to be found within the college athletics system. One of them deals with universities putting pressure on athletic apparel companies like Nike to end practices they deem to be exploitative lest they no longer be allowed to advertise their products on the universities' athletes or have alumni and students spend millions on official gear. I'm not denying that Nike uses sweatshop labor. But I do have a problem with universities and students demanding better treatment for workers overseas while contingent faculty literally slave away and these same student-athletes are exploited as well. Indeed, let us end exploitation. Just please don't look too closely in your own back yard.

Finally, I want to address the well-worn justification that college sports increase opportunities for minorities in higher education. We all have heard wonderful anecdotes about how a basketball/football scholarship is a poor minority student's only way of hardship. But is that a plus for college athletics or a strike against our entire education system where a system that focuses exclusively on wins and losses and not graduation rates? If sports in indeed the only way out, then we really need to take a hard look at education across all levels. College should be something that all students, regardless of race, color, or class, should reasonably be able to aspire to, not just those who can dribble, throw, run, or catch.

Shame on all of us for that.

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