Credit Where It's Due

As the scandal over UNC's "paper classes" shows, something isn't working in college sports. Maybe it's time we thought about this relationship differently.
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We all had something to admire in the spring of 2005. During the last weeks of my junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I witnessed a talented group of my peers display great courage, self-awareness, fortitude, and resilience in pursuit of a national championship. After a tumble from their accustomed national prominence and major adjustments to the coaching staff, the players on our men’s basketball team earned their title; the rest of us merely imagined that our idiosyncratic rituals and divine entreaties contributed to the achievement. In their triumph those student-athletes reinvigorated an entire fanbase, and they gave us all something to respect.

Nearly a decade later the pendulum has swung, and the recently exposed academic irregularities at UNC have given us all something to abhor. Such academic irregularities – a polite way of describing deceptive and entrenched practices often aimed at keeping floundering student-athletes eligible for games – are embarrassing, nefarious, and disheartening. And they happen in higher education more often than anyone would like.

For all the factors identified as causes of the scandal in Chapel Hill, the one to which the most vocal critics keep returning is the purported incompatibility between the goals of high-level collegiate sports and the aims of higher education. Yet it is precisely this assumption that needs to be nuanced and corrected if we are serious about maintaining academic integrity and retaining our pride and joy in watching collegiate sports.

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At the most basic level, participation in big-time collegiate athletics can and should be in harmony with higher education. There is a tendency among defenders of the status quo to tout athletic scholarships as the primary source of collegiate sports’ educational value. But sports offer much more than that. Collegiate sports provide not only financial assistance in the form of supplied tuition, but also an opportunity to instill in student-athletes the very skills and abilities valued within liberal education. Such capacities are learned and developed in the classroom, on the court, and in the game.

Rather than viewing athletics as parasitic on pedagogy, then, we should actively acknowledge the educational potential of collegiate sports at all division levels. What if this could be accomplished by taking a pedagogically rigorous approach to transforming collegiate athletics participation into university credit?

We know that student-athletes’ participation in sports contributes to their moral-intellectual formation: in particular instances we see this process happen over the course of a season or career. The training, competition, and travel in which student-athletes participate provide key opportunities not only for the cultivation of cognitive skills such as comprehension and analysis, but also for the development of capacities in self-awareness, empathy, humility, creativity, determination, and other vital adult things. Certainly these skills and capacities are not always fully developed on the playing field and in the weight room, but the same is true of lessons learned in the lecture hall and the library. The point is that collegiate sports provide portals through which student-athletes can develop their moral, intellectual, and reflective capacities.

Moreover, this whole person learning occurs in all types of collegiate athletics programs. It happens on the hockey rinks of liberal arts colleges in New England, the golf courses of Bay Area universities, the hallowed turfs of the Ivy League, the scorched fields of the SEC, and, yes, the basketball courts of Indiana and North Carolina.

This moral-intellectual formation of students is the very thing which liberal education seeks to promote. Learning in a classroom, whether that classroom is in the bowels of a dark laboratory or a sweaty university gym, is not just about the rote memorization of facts, figures, and data. Learning involves the acquisition of discipline-specific content as well as training in the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of this very content.

And developing such higher-order cognitive skills requires cultivating students’ self-awareness, empathy, curiosity, and fortitude. In a religious studies classroom, for example, a teacher who wishes to help students learn how to evaluate pundits’ and television personalities’ arguments about Islam will need to communicate to students basic knowledge about the beliefs and practices of Muslims. But she will also need to encourage students to examine their own presuppositions and biases regarding the material at hand, and this requires fostering students’ abilities in openness, reflectivity, and determination. These are the very values and abilities that are also fostered through participation in big-time collegiate athletics.

If such alignment does exist between the aims of Division I athletics and higher education, then what exactly are the major factors that contribute to student-athletes’ participation in bogus independent studies at schools like UNC? I would argue that, in no particular order, this owes to demands on student-athletes’ time, student-athletes’ overall level of preparedness for the rigor of higher education, and various pressures from institutions such as the university itself, the NCAA, and professional sports leagues.

Undoubtedly, student-athletes are significantly disadvantaged when it comes to learning in the classroom. Not only does sports participation leave student-athletes with less time to devote to academics than their peers, but in many cases, due to a variety of economic and social factors, student-athletes lack the preparation necessary for dealing with the challenges of higher education.

Additionally, the NCAA often undermines its professed liberal learning goals by prioritizing its financial ones; classes are tough enough without the interruption of a cross-country flight for a Wednesday night game on ESPN. Moreover, it is difficult to convince young adults of the value of an education when learning is billed as the memorization of millions of facts that have no bearing on future paydays involving millions of dollars, and when the unspoken purpose of all that rote learning is to stay eligible for the Clemson game. It is doubly so if authority figures such as coaches, athletic directors, and professors are the ones reinforcing this approach.

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Presuming that anyone involved earnestly wants to clean up this mess, how can we accomplish this? Some might claim that the factors outlined above demonstrate that big-time collegiate sports are inherently and fundamentally incompatible with higher education. Those who accept this as fact typically tend towards radical solutions: that collegiate athletics should be further separated, or even completely eradicated, from the confines of higher education.

There are a number of reasons, sentimental and otherwise, to oppose this. Foremost among such reasons is this: the move to remove athletics from higher education ignores the contributions that sports can and do make to the liberal education agenda. Additionally, to separate athletics from higher education would put at a disadvantage those athletes who must wait to enter professional sports leagues until a year or more after their high school graduations. On the flip side, academic hijinks like those unearthed at UNC are not the answer either. Giving student-athletes a free pass from class in the form of sham independent studies not only makes a mockery of others’ college educations, but also does nothing promote student-athletes’ moral-intellectual development.

Because I am aware of the legendarily byzantine complexities of the NCAA compliance process as well as the vast differences in curricula across colleges and universities nationwide, I will not be so bold as to say that the solution to this problem is an easy one, or that I have all the answers. But it does seem to me that any attempt to prevent this sort of scandal from happening again begins with the active acknowledgment and prioritization of one important fact: the same high-impact learning that is valued in university lecture halls is practiced and achieved on collegiate athletics fields.

So, then, why are more schools not actively considering a pedagogically-informed transformation of collegiate athletics participation into university credit? I am not suggesting that we simply slap credit hours and letter grades on student-athletes’ transcripts as a reward for their participation in collegiate sports, using games against Duke as de facto midterms. Rather, I am suggesting that various entities and stakeholders within and without universities – coaches, professors, administrators, and the like – work together to articulate learning goals and formulate assessments that will help us to measure and reward the cultivation of liberal education values within collegiate athletics.

This would entail explicitly and formally expressing the ways in which teams’ practices, games, and outside service work contribute to the broader learning goals of the university. It would also require the creation of assessments that evaluate student-athletes’ achievement of skills like leadership, integrity, empathy, and metacognition. Such assessments might come in the form of portfolios that football players assemble in order to reflect on their cultivation of learning values on the field, or term papers in which tennis players explore the connections between their work on the court and their future non-athletic careers.

The implementation of such practices, of course, would not be easy. Degrees within disciplines require the completion of particular coursework, and playing on the water polo team, for all its salubrious effects, does not impart the necessary, discipline-specific knowledge needed for a career in engineering. Moreover, some universities have general education requirements as opposed to open curricula, and being a member of the baseball team cannot and should not stand in for a required gender studies elective.

Figuring out how to make this work will involve a fair amount of trial and error. Mistakes will be made, and some of them will be made for the same expedient reasons behind the recent UNC debacle. But what happened at UNC, and what is doubtless happening across the collegiate sports landscape, is proof that things are wildly out of balance where student-athletes are concerned.

Instead of clinging to the illusion that this is not the case, or hunting for a place to lay blame, we might as well try something else. Instead of more chatter about the incompatibility between collegiate sports and higher education, let’s try something that honors both the importance of student-athletes’ moral-intellectual formation and the role that sports can play in that process. Championships are nice, but some goals are more important.


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