Where I Stand on Athletics: A Response to JoBeth

March 9, 2011

Yesterday I put on this blog a dissenting letter from JoBeth Buckley, an Earlham student-athlete, who wrote to say she disagreed with my call “to end intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”  That call came in a piece I wrote that was published by Dan DeVise of the Washington Post in his blog, College, Inc.  DeVise had sought my input for an article he wrote for the Washington Post Magazine proposing some ways to “fix higher education.”  I promised JoBeth a response, and here it is.

For starters, I wasn’t talking about Earlham when I referred to “intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”  I was talking about recruiting scandals at Auburn University.  I was talking about the ticket selling scandal at the University of Kansas.  I was talking about Reggie Bush having to be stripped of his Heisman Trophy at the University of Southern California.  I was talking about repeated allegations of sexual misconduct by the University of Colorado football team.  I was talking about the improper selling of athletic awards and paraphernalia by Ohio State University players.  I was talking about dozens of basketball and football programs where players are recruited to play for a university and then never receive a degree or an education.  (I could go on at some length.) I was talking about NCAA Division I Athletics, especially in traditional male sports, where greed, cheating, and off-the-court or off-the-field violence are as common as dandelions on the Earlham lawns in spring.

Earlham is an NCAA Division III institution.  We’re the division that does NOT offer athletic scholarships.  We’re the division where many of the colleges emphasize participation in athletics.  At Earlham, for example, about a quarter of our 1200 students participate in intercollegiate athletics (on one of our 16 teams) each year, and about a third participate at some time in their college career.

JoBeth’s letter expresses eloquently why this approach to athletics is the right one for an institution of higher education.  Athletics done in this Division III way extend and complement our formal educational program.  Athletics done in this way can and often does teach exactly what JoBeth says it has taught her:  “perseverance, respect for opponents as well as teammates, discipline in the face of temptations, and … the importance of a supportive community.” At a Division I university, perhaps 1% of students participate in athletics: not very many students are garnering educational benefits from that token participation of a few special students who are too often isolated from the rest of the student body.

But NCAA Division III isn’t “athletics as we know it.”  Perhaps I should have been more careful about that “we.”  I can see how someone at Earlham reading that could think I meant athletics as Earlham knows it.  But Dan DeVise was asking for advice about how to fix higher education in the United States, and intercollegiate athletics seen through a national lens is Division I athletics pure and simple.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to add that it is Division I athletics, which is entirely in thrall to professional sports.

I certainly enjoy watching professional sports, especially Major League Baseball, but I never mistake it for an educational enterprise.  Much too often, Division I athletics ape professional sports, with the unappealing proviso that the players aren’t paid — they’re just used.  Note that the one “fix” I suggested to DeVise is that the NCAA lose its tax-exempt status.  Largely the NCAA budget is supported by the huge Division I basketball contract with the media: the “March Madness” that is soon to begin.  The NCAA pays no taxes on those revenues, arguing that it is a not-for profit (!!) entity supporting higher education.  I don’t think that’s defensible. Let’s recognize that the NCAA is an entertainment organization.

But my larger concern is that the splendid EDUCATIONAL case for intercollegiate athletics that JoBeth Buckley makes is nearly impossible to make for Division I athletics.

Some try to argue that Division I athletics are an OK thing because they bring net revenue to a university through ticket sales, T-shirts, TV contracts and the like.  And probably that is true for the universities with the most successful, high profile programs.  The truth is,   however, that most Division I institutions lose money through athletics when everything that should be counted is counted.  And that’s why I said in what I wrote to Dan DeVise that “Athletics take resources away from genuine mission activities and regularly risk corrupting the integrity of every process within the academy.”

Why should we care in Division III that Division I (AKA “intercollegiate athletics as we know it”) is both corrupting to students too often and a financial drain on universities?  Aren’t we doing OK: haven’t we found the right road in Division III?   The case that we may have couldn’t be made better than by JoBeth.  The case that we haven’t is harder to see, I’ll acknowledge.  For that you have to go to the annual NCAA Convention, where Divisions I, II and III gather to steer intercollegiate athletics.  What I experience there is gravitational pull.  Just as Division I grows more and more like professional sports each year, Division III grows more and more like Division I each year.  The attraction of the values (or lack thereof) of professional sports is regularly in evidence. Those who would make the case that JoBeth makes are routinely now outvoted by those who want Division III to be Division I only with less outlay (no athletic scholarships….) of money.

I’ll close with just one example, “red-shirting,” but I could offer many others.  At Earlham, as at any healthy college, we want our students to graduate in four years.  When our students take longer, we start worrying about graduation rates and attrition.  We should keep the focus squarely on the educational importance of young men and women finishing their degrees in a timely way.  But in Division I sports, it has become routine to “red-shirt” some first year players: they practice with the team, but they don’t play in games so that they can use their four years of eligibility in future years.  Of course these red-shirted students take five or six years to graduate.  On any given Saturday in the fall on football telecasts, you can hear someone referred to as a “red-shirt freshman.”  That means he’s a sophomore in plain English.  The case for this is hardly educational.  The case is to maximize the likelihood of winning that year or the next whatever the educational consequences of the young man.  It assuages me not at all that the player may want to be red-shirted: the university, as an educational institution, should be four-square behind his graduating on time, not tempting him to delay.

What does this have to do with Division III?  Red-shirting has come there, too.  Every bad practice of Division I makes its way a few years later into the legislative arena of Division III, and too often is voted in.  That’s what I mean by gravitational pull. And that’s why, in many too few words to be clear what I meant, I urged Dan DeVise to advocate for “ending intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”

JoBeth, I hope you will forgive me for writing so much here in response to your letter, and forgive me especially for writing too little to explain well what I meant to Dan DeVise.

For the record, I spent a half hour on the phone with him in December, after I had sent him my urgings, trying to explain to him the difference between Division I and Division III sports.  What he finally wrote as a fix, an urging to “cap athletics subsidies” focuses entirely on Division I.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Where I Stand on Athletics: A Response to JoBeth

  1. Pingback: End Intercollegiate Athletics As We Know It, Cont. | The Observatory

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