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Athletics is Educational, Theory Says So

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s athletic-academic scandal. Sexual assaults at Baylor and Michigan State. The FBI’s deep dive into men’s college basketball. There is no doubt that college athletics is experiencing a disorderly and tumultuous time. But if we’re honest, the relationship between the academy and college athletics has always been tenuous at best.

Molly HarryMolly Harry

Many faculty and administrators in the academy view athletics as a distraction to the mission of higher education, and athletes as second-tier students. To many, student-athletes are actually athlete-students because athletics always comes first. In fact, some say, athletes aren’t even on their campuses to learn or earn an education, but to play their sport.

While these perspectives may ring true in particular circumstances, the majority of college athletes not only earn their college education in their lectures and labs, but also earn it on the field, in the pool or on the court.

In their research, Dr. Arthur Chickering and Dr. Zelda Gamson introduced the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” to improve students’ educational experiences and enable them, with support from faculty members and mentors, to maximize educational potential. This theory has been siloed into what is traditionally viewed as the academic side of campuses (i.e., lecture halls, faculty offices and discussion groups) while ignoring the relevant and meaningful applications it has to athletics.

Athletics is educational, and this theory proves it.

Principle 1: Encourage contact between student athletes and faculty. A plethora of research has supported the notion that student-faculty interaction improves student involvement, motivation and success. Research concerning athlete experiences also supports athlete-faculty relationships. Athletic administrators and coaches know this, and often encourage their athletes to visit office hours, ask questions in class and cultivate rapport with faculty members. Undoubtedly, not all athletes heed this advice. However, neither do all non-athletes.

Additionally, athletes have the opportunities to build relationships with other mentors, most prominently coaches. As Chickering and Gamson note, relationships with faculty (and in this case coaches) may aid students who are athletes in persevering through difficult times and encourage them to think about their values and plans post-graduation. Athletics is educational.

Principle 2: Develop reciprocity and cooperation among student athletes. Chickering and Gamson state: “Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race.” That pretty much sums up college athletics. Athletes, even when competing as individuals, have scores that count toward their team totals. Athletes in individual sports also train and practice with peers, offering rich learning opportunities through teamwork and collaboration. Athletics is educational.

Principle 3: Encourage active learning. We learn by doing and through experiences. Being actively engaged in the classroom comes naturally to many athletes. Like non-athletes, athletes can talk about the course topics and relate it to their life experiences (and their athletics experiences). Active learning can also take place outside of the classroom, the exact opportunity that intercollegiate athletics provides. For example, athletes in an anatomy and physiology class may be able to draw upon their training and conditioning experiences to further understand course topics such as muscle sarcomere contraction or increased endorphins post-exercise. It is easy to couple the court and classroom. Athletics is educational.

Principle 4: Give prompt feedback. Students need prompt feedback to get the most out of their coursework. This feedback allows students to assess their knowledge while also reflecting on what they have gained from the work they’ve done. Athletes receive prompt feedback from their professors and their coaches. Chickering and Gamson posit that students require opportunities to perform and receive advice for improvement. Athletes experience this immediate feedback from coaches at practice, in games and in film sessions. This feedback not only covers plays and decision-making, but also leadership development and sportsmanship. Feedback from both faculty and coaches is crucial in the educational growth of athletes. Athletics is educational.

Principle 5: Emphasize time on task. Time on task is the foundation for learning. This is not only crucial in the classroom, but also on the courts and fields of athletics. Athletes dedicate hours to perfecting their craft, the very epitome of time on task. These hours allocated to sport teach dedication, hard work, leadership, sportsmanship, compassion and trust. Additionally, the hours they allot to their coursework expand on these previous characteristics, engage them in topics outside of athletics and teach time management. Athletics is educational.

Principle 6: Communicate high expectations. Research shows that when faculty hold lower expectations for athletes, they are more likely to confirm the “dumb jock” stereotype. When faculty project high expectations, athletes succeed. Athletes are accustomed to these high expectations from professors, family, peers, coaches and themselves. The concept of exceeding expectations is often ingrained in athletes from the time they begin participating in their sport. This often encourages them to be successful not only in their sport, but also in their academic and other endeavors. Athletics breeds high expectations and these expectations extend beyond the field or track. Athletics is educational.

Principle 7: Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. When the Academy degrades athletics and refuses to view it as an educational experience, it disrespects diverse talents and other ways of learning. This traditional athletics as “other” perspective only isolates athletics further from the core of academia. People bring a myriad of talents and modes of learning to the college experience. One of these avenues is through athletics. By not respecting athletics, athletes’ style of learning and college experience is negated. By showing respect to athletes and athletics, athletes may be encouraged to showcase their talents both athletically and academically. Additionally, when they feel this support from the academy, athletes become more accepting of learning from others and respecting others outside of athletics. Athletics is educational.

It is time for the academy to recognize the education that athletes derive from their athletic experiences. Similarly, coaches and athletics administrators should encourage athletes to develop relationships with faculty and classmates off the field or court. Like many other groups on campuses, athletes constitute a unique student population, one often underserved in the academy. The education their sports offer should not be overlooked. Athletics is educational. Theory says so.

Molly Harry is a Ph.D. student in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development and a teaching assistant for the course Athletics in the University. Her research is focused on the intersection of academics and athletics, particularly bridging the gap between the academy and athletics. 

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