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Athletics Are Not Expendable, if Education is Our Goal

These are troubling times for higher education. With budgets tightening, hiring and salary freezes, and the possibility of cuts looming, many are looking for ways to save our institutions.

It may not be surprising that some are calling for cuts to athletics before other departments.

“All cuts at universities should start with sports programs,” tweeted one academic recently.

In other institutions, entire sports teams are being cut to save money, and the Group of Five (G5) NCAA Division I Commissioners are proposing allowing schools to drop certain teams and still remain at D1 competition levels.

All of this adds up to the long-standing view that athletics are simply an adjunct to college and university’s actual mission and purpose. At best a moneymaking set of extracurricular activities, at worst a distraction from serious academics.

In situations in which coaches make a significant salary, it makes sense to ask them to take voluntary pay-cuts, as has been done in some places like Iowa State, Eastern Washington, the University of Kansas, among other schools.

Asking athletics staff to join in sacrifices is well and good; arguing that cuts should be made in athletics first suggests that athletics are not part of the educational work colleges do. This, I argue, is misguided. Athletics are absolutely a part—a core part even—of the student education experience.

Dr. Michael RocqueDr. Michael Rocque
  • First, according to the most recent NCAA statistics, student-athletes represent 25% of the student body on average across DIII college campuses. At liberal arts colleges, these percentages tend to be higher, with some schools (such as my own Bates College) reporting 36% of the student-body participating in varsity athletics.

So any notion that there is a select few privileged athlete-students on liberal arts campuses is erroneous; these folks are an integral part of the student body.

  • Second, athletics offers a complement to our curricula. Consider what we hope to give students in the classroom. Browse any teaching statement, whether in a job application or tenure dossier and you’ll likely see the following—that the teacher seeks to instill critical thinking skills and mastery of the subject.

What are student athletes, particularly at the DIII level, doing most of the time? They are not only fine-tuning the x’s and o’s of their sport and position (mastery of subject), but they are in many cases figuring out how to be leaders, how to manage time, how to be disciplined (critical-thinking). In other words, what they are doing on the field, on the court, and (perhaps most often) in the classroom, is part of the same enterprise as we faculty view as our missions.

  • Third, particularly in liberal arts colleges, the mantra of “educating the whole person” is repeated often; it is part of the core institutional planning at Bates College, where I teach. But what does this mean? It can be (and generally is) interpreted to mean learning across a wide variety of disciplines, understanding and valuing diversity, and engendering a life-long love of learning.

Why is athletics not considered a part of the whole person? Not only is it directly applicable to physical education, athletics allows students to flourish, grow, and learn in multiple areas.

Further, athletics staff should be and often are considered colleagues, part of the faculty at colleges. What are the benefits of viewing athletics staff not as competition for students’ time but collaborators in their educational journeys?

  • First, we all know that workplace culture and colleagues are an important part of job satisfaction. As a faculty liaison to my school’s football team and transitioning to the Faculty Athletics Representative has given me exposure to an entire department of colleagues with whom I otherwise would not have had the pleasure of working.

Some of these are truly fantastic colleagues who make it a joy to come to campus. One project I worked on with our women’s basketball coach sought to bring student-athletes and faculty together for a joint basketball game; a bit of fun across the imaginary divide.

  • Second, we may learn a thing or two from our athletics colleagues. How many of us have ever complained (silently or out-loud) that our students do not do the reading, that they do not seem motivated or engaged at times? Our coaches happen to be experts at motivation and getting the most out of our students.

What tips or tricks do they use in practices to help maintain focus and to teach complex plays? On the flip side, what can the voluminous literature on pedagogy (which in college is really a misnomer, relating to the teaching of children) do to help coaches in their craft?

It may surprise some to learn that DIII student athletes have higher graduation rates and report greater success with managing their time. Where student athletes may struggle is in academic success in terms of GPA—a pedagogical partnership between athletics and faculty could go some ways toward addressing that gap.

But I think most importantly, athletics (and other clubs/activities) should be seen as part of the educational journey, particularly in the DIII and liberal arts worlds. To dismiss the educational value of athletics to me seems akin to a STEM professor considering a student’s elective in a humanities course to be a waste of time. It’s short-sighted.

Such a move recasts some of the stickier conflicts faculty have with athletics regarding travel time. Should we allow students to miss class for a competition? How many classes? Yet many of us attend academic conferences during the semester and miss class ourselves, not once considering these absences to be related to “extra-curricular” activities (which they can often seem like, to our students). The same consideration, I suggest, should be given to student-athletes’ activities.

Athletics in the American university is once again in the cross-hairs of those who view it as at odds with what higher education is about. Cuts will certainly need to be made in the coming months. But rather than viewing athletics as an inconvenience that should be the first to go, faculty should embrace athletics as a core part of the educational process.

Dr. Michael Rocque is an associate professor of sociology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He has been the faculty liaison for the football program since 2014 and is currently transitioning to the Faculty Athletics Representative. 

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