Saturday, March 19, 2011

March Madness and the Hypocrisy of Academia

"Hey, people will finally know where we teach!"

This is what my husband said when our school's team "shocked the world" (or at least over 95% of the people playing online bracket games) by beating a much higher (and more well-know seed) in the first round of the NCAA March Madness Basketball tournament. No one ever knows where we work; now everyone knows at least the name of our college, and which state it is located. If nothing else, this saves us a lot of trouble when it people ask us what college we teach at. Maybe they won't look at us with as much sympathy now, thinking that at least we have a good basketball team.

I have very mixed feelings about college sports. I've coached Division III swimmers at a school (actually, schools - three of them) that takes academics VERY seriously. The swimmers (and other athletes I met) were smart, hard workers, and generally upstanding citizens. Yes, there were exceptions, as there always are, but generally, these kids had to be pretty outstanding to get into the school to begin with. The swimmers knew that this was a highest level they would ever achieve in their swimming careers; the Olympics, or even Nationals, weren't in the cards. But the chose to go to our particular school in no small part because they would be able to continue swimming. 

On the other hand, I know how much our program must have cost the school: coaching, travel, facilities (which were very modest). The school could have probably hired another tenure-track faculty member with the money saved. You can't argue that the programs were money-making, as they didn't even charge admissions to see any of the games. It may have a positive impact on alumni giving, as they fondly remember their experience at the school as student-athletes, but other than that, I can't see any benefit of having formal, organized, athletics on camps. 

It must seem hypocritical of me to question the value of athletics on campus so soon after writing about the importance of physical fitness to mental fitness. But does formally organized sports team really encourage physical and mental health, especially when the programs aren't open to all students? Could we instead put the money in the classroom, maintain the facilities, and encourage students to create their own leagues, clubs, or teams to compete (or not) at any level they want? Inter-murals, club teams (non-NCAA sanctioned sports), and even Masters teams exist all over the country. Why does it have to be organized and sanctioned by a massive governing body, especially when the students aren't even receiving athletic scholarships for their participation in the sport?

Which brings me to Division I sports. Many argue that the scholarships represent an opportunity for students to attend a school (or a better, more expensive school) than they would be able to otherwise. As I've said before, how is that an argument for athletics and not an argument against how we currently admit and fund students? Watching the documentary on the "Fab Five" or "Pony Excess" (both on ESPN), I marvel at the blatant hypocrisy of a system that makes millions and leaves athletes starving. University Diaries is tireless in her effort to expose all of the other ways that major college athletics are sustained on a laundry list of dishonesties, hypocrisies, and outright fraudulent behavior. Why, then, is a school like UC Santa Barbara (a school that is already one of the most popular choices for California students), in the face of massive state budget cuts, still looking to move into full NCAA Division I status? And why is it that we, the faculty, keep on keepin' on, as if nothing is happening?

I think it comes back to my husband's comment. We all love prestige. And if that prestige can't come from historical sources (Ivies, for example), then it'll come from the one other thing all Americans care about: sports. Having lived in California, I know that UCSB doesn't have the greatest academic reputation among the UC schools; I'm not really sure how having a great Div I program changes that, but it would seem to be the thinking. Sure, we're a party school, but we have a fantastic basketball team, so please take us more seriously. We can't honestly think that the money that is supposedly generated by these programs is finding its way into our classrooms and research funding, into increasing the number of tenure lines, or improving the over-all quality of our undergrads. As a contingent faculty, I know all too well how insecure my position is, and I thankful that I have never been on the receiving end of any pressure, directly or indirectly, to pass or give a higher grade to an athlete. But have we, the faculty, lost so much control over the institution that we cannot stop what is going on on our own campuses? Have we given up trying? Or do we just not care? 

I'm not really sure which option is more depressing.


  1. The discussion on the merits of athletics will be with us forever. Athletics can be a great portal to boost enrollment, donor engagement (across the board), and prestige. Unfortunately, there are a number of schools out there that cast a dark cloud by not paying attention to the mission of developing student-athletes of the highest caliber, on and off the court. To those who do, thank you. To those of you who don't (take note Tennessee and others), you are ruining it for the rest of us. Athletics can be a great boost for institutions; it can also be a great blemish. Good leadership is needed for the model to work.

  2. I don't love prestige (though I do love money). But colleges as institutions certainly do. And yes, most profs I know gave up because, as with caught plagiarists, they knew the college was not going to be on their side. Special academic 'advisors' were there, ostensibly to help the student-athletes but more often to act as the administrative muscle and/or grade negotiators. It was depressing, but the best solution seemed to be ignoring the injustice of it and focusing on other things...which is not to say that we didn't have a few really great kids who did their best, just that the college at large didn't seem too concerned with academics in this case.

  3. I'm a little torn myself. I went to a DII school where I competed on the Equestrian team, acted as captain, and participated on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Our school definitely emphasized academic performance and made freshman study hall hour mandatory.

    Now, I got to a DI school, who also participated(though not very long) in March Madness. I was wondering how on earth it was possible for those players to accomplish any work. I still have yet to figure it out. Though, I'm happy that when I hand out my resumes, they are now more likely to recognize my university, I recognize that, for these DI athletes in sports where pro positions are an option, academics are probably not at the top of their totem poles.

    On the other hand, sports build community, and community building is half the battle in college. Without athletics to tie students to the university, many of them go home on weekends, where they go out partying with old friends or get part time jobs. Either way, they are most likely not doing more studying. In this way, athletic programs can motivate students to stay part of the university community, whether they are athletes or not.

    Definitely an interesting topic, and one worth debating. Maybe you could turn it over to your class for some discussion?


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