So it seems that everyone is talking about the “fake class scandal” at UNC. And because I have have something to say and an internet connection, I’m going to add to the pile of internet outlets covering the story.*
I won’t rehash the details; if you don’t know them already, click on the above links. I’m much more interested in proposing a solution. A radical solution. One that, in all likelihood, would never, ever be implemented. And that’s too bad, because I think this is a great idea:
Allow students to major in sports.
I don’t mean allowing students to major in sports-related fields. I mean, allow them to major in sports.
One of the problems with college athletics (and yes, I recognize there are many problems) is the notion that the student-athlete must justify his/her existence at the university by taking “real” classes, pursuing a “traditional” major, and by pretending to be Just Another Student. The reason why this is a problem is that student athletes – especially scholarship athletes in Division I programs – are not in any way treated like other students. In some cases, there are significant privileges that come with being a successful college athlete; in other cases, student athletes have demands placed on them that are not placed on other students. Student-athletes are treated differently by the universities, by the media, by the authorities, by everyone. And then the world pretends outrage when it’s discovered that – GASP! – they get special treatment by faculty? That’s nonsense. So let’s cut the bullshit and start treating them like other students. Let’s recognize that student athletes can exist at the college without having to pretend to be majoring in something other than their chosen sport.
One of the best things about the modern university is that it can be many things to many people. It can be a place to engage in the arts, learn about the world (as well as a platform for traveling), or train for a career. And there are so many careers one can train for. Is there any reason why one of those careers cannot be in professional athletics? Wait, did you just say that many student-athletes are preparing for a career in professional athletics? Right you are! There are students who go to college to prepare for a career in the arts; they learn about the arts, develop technical skills, make professional contacts, and then upon graduation they try to pursue their careers. Students interested in a career in business have a similar path. As do those who – perhaps stupidly, given the job market – desire a career in academia. But those who wish to pursue a career in professional athletics must not only devote their time to training for their chosen careers, but also pretend to be devoting their time to another career, a career many of them aren’t terribly interested in, and one for which they are – according to the recent scandal at UNC – quite likely being poorly trained for. So why continue the charade? Why should we demand that scholarship athletes essentially pursue a double major, whereby their second major – the one they have little to no interest in – provides a false – yet somehow comforting – justification for their primary major?**
Why don’t we just allow scholarship athletes to pursue “Sports” as their major?*** As linked to above, many student athletes are devoting a great deal of time to the pursuit of a career as a professional athlete. Surely, the problem cannot be that there are not enough potential credit hours. In fact, is there any reason why we cannot assign credit hours to the work done by athletes? They spend time taking notes, learning plays, studying film, practicing their craft, and improving their skills. These skills are tested on a regular basis (and in come cases, more regularly than academic students are tested on their skills), and failure to keep up with their work and improve their performance can lead to being dropped from their “major.”
Of course, it’s not like we have to completely reinvent the wheel here. Honestly, I don’t see this as being terribly different from students pursuing degrees in the arts. I teach at an arts university, home to the Crane School of Music. Let’s take a look at the required curriculum for, as an example, Vocal Performance Majors. Note how many courses in skills, technique, or performance are required. Is this any different from the kind of work done by athletes in their skills training and performance work? I mean, ignore the fact that one kind of skills-training and performance work carries academic credits and course numbers. Add some course numbers and credits to the hours spent studying film and time on the field, and don’t we have a program of study? Further, students who want to study at Crane must pass an audition; is this terribly different from recruiting athletes? In both cases, students must be selected from among a large group of prospective students, each of whom is hoping to be accepted into his/her first choice program.
I can hear more objections, starting with: most college athletes will not turn pro, so they should have a back-up plan. Agreed. But we don’t apply such thinking to other majors, do we? If we forced all students to pick up a double major because of the lack of jobs in their professional field, we’d be pushing all of our Classics majors into Business programs, wouldn’t we?**** The future job market doesn’t seem to be a justification for any other major – ever hear of the Starving Artist? – so why should it be one for athletes? And let’s not forget, shall we, the current problems in the academic job market. Or maybe you want to complain about the abuse of power exercised by college athletics programs? I would link you to stories about professors abusing their power over students, but there were so many hits on Google that I almost broke my computer. There are problems with the NCAA? Of course there are. And before I come up with a witty retort, let me remind you that it’s not too late to register for the MLA annual conference.
I’m not saying this is a perfect idea, or one without potential problems. But one thing we can and should absolutely do is stop pretending that college can’t be a place where future athletes go to study, train, and prepare for a future in professional athletics. We can also stop pretending that this is not a goal worthy of pursuit.^
I short, if we want to pretend that the scholarship student-athlete is Just Another Student, let’s just stop pretending. Let’s accept that student-athletes are studying something, something both useful and lucrative, something that society values.
**To give a hyperbolic analogy, let’s institute a new rule: all non-student-athletes must now, in addition to whatever they are studying, pick up a major in, say, Archaeology. How you find the time to do the additional course work and field work is not our problem. Just do it. Oh, and you only have 4 years of eligibility, so you’ll likely be carrying twice the course load you were before. Have fun.
***Yes, I know that many such athletes are legitimately pursuing an academic major. Many aren’t interested in a career in professional athletics, at least as an athlete. And that’s great. But does this mean that we should pretend that all student-athletes should be such students?
****What few of them still remain, that is. SUNY is doing its best to stop teaching Classics, so maybe they’ll all find their way to Business anyway.
^But if you want to go back to a discussion of the job market, can you point to another field that has contractually-guaranteed minimum salaries over 6 figures?