The Big Question versus a Manageable Question


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Murray Sperber, one of the most acerbic critics of present-day college athletics, predicts that schools that are successful in athletics in the coming decades will be the ultimate losers because the public will at some point become disenchanted with the marriage of big time sports with the academy and will turn on those places foolish enough to have embraced this--in his eyes--corrupt union.

Many of my colleagues feel Sperber is right, and these opponents of the Division I sports philosophy, i.e., a philosophy of regional and national competition at the highest possible level, would argue that this union is the real ethical issue that ought to be discussed here.

I choose not to deal with this question, but would like at least to indicate several reasons why. One is that many of my colleagues disagree with Sperber's view. They are either neutral towards athletics, or strongly supportive. Another reason is that our culture, our nation, and our university are all so committed to this union that the discussion of its dissolution becomes purely speculative. One characteristic of well-run athletic departments, as multi million dollar enterprises, is that they plan many years ahead. As a result, their financial future is commingled with the university's for many years in advance. Faculty governing bodies have a time horizon of two years at most. They experience frequent turnover and would have a hard time mounting the kind of sustained effort that would be required for any significant disengagement. And the final and most important reason: becoming absorbed with that discussion leads faculties away from the areas of interaction with athletics where they do have authority and where they can exert some influence, namely academic and curricular matters.

As the concern for the integrity of the academic process has grown within the NCAA, athletics departments have addressed themselves to this question. They began to respond during the late 1970s and 1980s by creating fairly elaborate apparatuses for the advising, tutoring, and academic oversight of the athletes. At most institutions, these units have grown up within the athletics departments and outside the framework of normal academic control. This is the case, for instance, in all the schools of the Southeastern Conference with the exception of Louisiana State University. Louisiana State altered its system as the result of an academic scandal, and similar developments with a similar inspiration have occurred at the University of Michigan and North Carolina State. So one thing the university can do and is doing is to ask how those who direct the academic life of the university can play a more decisive role in overseeing the academic development of athletes.

Many faculty members are disturbed by the thought that athletes might enter the university without an allegiance to its intellectual goals and that they see their stay at the university only as a means to a very lucrative end. But this attitude is not limited to athletes. A college degree is a credential which grants the holder social status, and there are myriads of non-athletes who begin their college careers with only social, but no intellectual, goals. Our job in a democratic system which invites so many people into higher education, is to try to open up new perspectives to those students and to show them that there are intellectual worlds and values of which they are not aware and which are well worth exploring. We will not succeed with everyone, but we should try, and we should not except athletes because they are trainees in a glamour industry that will make a very small number of them far wealthier than most of their teachers will ever be. Most young athletes will not share that fate, and even for those who do succeed in becoming professionals, it would be a disservice to them to leave them unchallenged educationally and to dilute the quality of their education by engaging in practices calculated to guarantee eligibility by always taking the path of educational least resistance. In practical terms this could mean oversight of the selection and retention of the personnel who work with the athletes academically and more careful monitoring of the quality of the educational experience the athletes undergo.

Copyright DAVID LEE, PH.D.

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Last updated: July 22, 1997