Saturday, September 30, 2006

Athletics and Academics

As I watched thousands of drunken fans make their way past my house this morning (September 30) to a football stadium where the Iowa-Ohio State game was not scheduled to begin until 10 hours later, I was reminded of Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford's regular Wednesday commentary on NPR's "Morning Edition" this past week.

Headlined "College Sports Excesses Seep Into High Schools," it began:

"I've decided to rewrite my will. . . .. [T]he bulk of my estate is going where it's really needed -- to the athletic department at my old elementary school. There, the money will help renovate the weight room and build a 20,000-seat football stadium with a retractable roof for the disadvantaged little fourth and fifth grade student athletes at my alma mater.

"Basically, you see, rather than correcting all the abuses of college athletics, we Americans are instead simply taking all that's wrong with college sports down to high school. And given good old American know-how, I figure that by the time I'm pushing up daisies the same sins will have reached the elementary school level."

It continues along this line, but you get the idea.

Frankly, I don't know that anything can or should be done about these excesses -- except to the extent that the young athletes are being harmed in some way. Parents, students, school administrators and teachers are in a position to opt out if they want, or self-impose such limitations as they may think desirable. For an analogous analysis see, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling and Paternalism," September 4, 2006.

But there are a couple of things we might want to consider that would not interfere a bit with the "youth athletics industry" (as it has come to be) or the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the fans. And there are precedents for both.

Deford concludes, "Both ESPN and the Fox Sports Network regularly televise high school games nationally. Really, do we need this attention for teenagers? The bald fact is sports is growing in importance in schools even as book learning is diminishing. But in the United States, no athlete shall be left behind." (emphasis supplied)

Athletics and Academics

I grew up in a college town, and have now returned to it. I spent six years at a major football university as an undergraduate and law student. I've taught at a good many more, including the one in the town where I now live. I've served on the local school board. Based on those years of varied experience I've formed some opinions.

High Schools.

Intramural sports are great in school. Physical fitness is essential if we're ever to do anything about childhood obesity. But the overemphasis on the semi-pro competition between institutions' teams, whether high school or college, is at odds with the academic mission.

I wouldn't suggest for a moment that we abolish these sports teams -- and it wouldn't make any difference if I did, except for putting myself at physical risk. But I would suggest the sports programs, and the academic programs, would benefit from a separation agreement.

Europe and the rest of the world are if anything even more crazy about their sports than we are. The only true world series, after all, is the World Cup soccer competition. They certainly haven't de-emphasized sports.

What they have done, however, is separate it from academics. Their school children and college athletes play for community teams, not school teams.

Think about it. We do a good deal of this already. There's Little League for baseball. In Iowa City we have the "Kickers" soccer league. The City Recreation Department organizes a number of sports leagues including softball. Many small Iowa rural towns have a community softball team that fills the bleachers on a summer's eve. There are bowling leagues. So this is not an alien idea, even in America, and certainly not in the rest of the world.

Athletic competition tears some towns, and school districts, apart. Community teams would bring them together.

Trying to blend athletics and academics creates conflicts of interest for everyone. High school principals and teachers may be under pressure to give student athletes special privileges -- and passing grades.

Colleges and Universities.

But I've only heard stories about high schools. As a visiting professor around the country I've had some experience with colleges and universities.

I once had a call from a university president's office asking me to change a football player's grade. Of course, I refused to do it. But imagine the indignity for a university president having to make such a request.

Imagine the pressure on the untenured, tenure-track professors -- or a tenured full professor for that matter -- at that school, or any other, knowing that his or her school might lose the "big game" that Saturday if they enter the grade that an athlete actually earned, rather than bumping it up to keep the athlete eligible.

Nor is the coach immune. Our football coach is paid $3 million a year, the highest paid public employee in the state of Iowa. He and the basketball coach don't need reminders of what they've been hired to do, but they get them in their contracts anyway: the more they win the more they're paid. At the same time, colleges put forth a rhetoric about "student athletes." The university provides tutors, and entire buildings devoted exclusively to athletes' education, tracks their grades, and graduation rates. But the coaches know that if they let the "student" part of the equation interfere with the "athlete" part the coach will be looking for another job.

And for those of the college athletes who really do want to be students as well, they have a conflict, too. I've spoken with football players who need to log time in the science labs required to get into medical school, but have been told they're going to have to choose between that and football practice sessions.

The economic benefits that flow to these students are not insignificant, but they are as nothing compared with what the coaches are paid -- or the athletes playing for professional teams. And yet, the reality is that college football teams are as much "farm clubs" for the National Football League as baseball's farm clubs are for the majors.

Obviously, it's highly unlikely this system would ever be changed over the objection of the alums, coaches and school administrators. And if it were to be, it would need to be league-wide. A single school couldn't do it unilaterally.

But here's a thought for a starter; that I'll illustrate with how it might work at the University of Iowa as a part of the Big 10.

The football program, which tends to operate relatively independently of the university president's office anyway, would become entirely independent, a for-profit corporation with a board of directors and CEO. It would negotiate with the university for continued use of the "Hawkeyes" trademark, and make a lease arrangement for the use of the stadium and its skyboxes. The program would be expected to run without any taxpayer support. The board could pay the coach whatever it wanted, and set ticket prices, and contract for television rights, as it chose.

The players would be recruited however the corporation wanted, but presumably from high schools and other colleges as now. But they would be paid; not as much as coaches or NFL players, but something more in accord with their role in bringing in the football corporation's revenue.

Presumably the NFL would continue to scout the team, as major league baseball does with the minor league players.

There would be no requirement that they be enrolled at the University of Iowa. Perhaps a part of the University-football corporation contract could provide that those players who wanted to enroll in some courses could do so at free or reduced rates while under contract to the team, but none would be required to do so.

I know that neither idea -- community teams instead of high school teams, and separate corporations for the former college teams -- is going anywhere. But I figure if a big shot Sports Illustrated guy like Fank Deford can say what he did I ought to be able to throw out these ideas without the risk of being lynched.

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Anonymous said...

One word: Amen.

Anonymous said...

My son has played 2 years middle school football and 4 years high school football. For the last 4 years my son has been belittled and harassed by the ass. coach. The ass. coach also has 2 boys of his own that are playing. One night after a game where my son was put on the depth chart and the ass. coaches boy was injured he was excited to play that night. We drove 2 hours to the game and there he sat on the sidelines and was mad and after the game he threw a big fit. The ass. coach approached us and said what happened last week we have taken care of that, when I spoke up and said apparently not. In our Code of Conduct it says that we can not approach a coach after a game or at practice. But he knew approaching us was going to have me blow my top and yeah I did. My son ended up getting a 3 day out school suspension, kicked off the football team , loss of football, and 10 week suspension from school activities along with his parents. How far can you push a child until he finally breaks, especially when you have coaches telling them that they are no good and if you don't play are you gonna sick your mama on me???? Please email me and let me know!