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A Student-Focused NCAA Needs an Athletics Majors

As part of a larger series on reinventing college, Brad Wolverton of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a piece about creating a student-focused NCAA. As arguments for NCAA reform go, it is decidedly on the side of turning athletics back to the core mission of the university rather than embracing the business side. The piece is for Chronicle subscribers only, and the devil is in the details, but here are the five changes Wolverton suggests.

Wolverton’s Five Proposed Changes

  1. Make coaches faculty members who also teach.
  2. Reduce athletic commitments so athletes have more opportunities in college.
  3. Give players a greater voice (or voting) in NCAA governance.
  4. Beef up due process and privacy protections for student-athletes.
  5. Help student-athletes with job placement following college.

All are great suggestions, although the crowd on the other side of the aisle will likely cringe at some of them. Compared to some of the other changes suggested, like no grades and starting primary education at age three, Wolverton’s ideas seem trivial in the grand scheme of higher education.

All of these proposals are repairs or changes to a system that increasingly looks unworkable. Each suggestion seeks to strike a better balance between athletics and education, between protections for students and the quest for revenue. None of these change the relationship between athletics and academics to the point where managing balance is no longer needed because balance is inherent.

The NCAA has tried quite a few things. The most highly touted has been the Academic Progress Rate, which gives coaches and administrators an incentive to graduate student-athletes. But the incentives are targeted at eligibility, retention, and graduation, rather than capturing the more fluid concept of education. For all the good it has done, the APR has lead to things like increased clustering, the growth of academic support departments, and the potential for increased academic fraud.

The constant push has been to hold down athletics as an extracurricular activity, and increase the role of academics. But to change the game, we need to go in the other direction and meld athletics with academics by establishing majors in athletics for student-athletes.

The Arguments For Athletics Majors Have Been Made Many Times Before, But Here is a Quick Summary:

  • Athletics has few or no significant differences from other artistic or entertainment pursuits.
  • We see value in the study of artistic pursuits despite the long odds of making a living purely on talent in those fields.
  • Increases in injuries, especially concussions, make the study of athletes more important than ever.
  • Elite athletes need education in personal finance, agent and advisor selection, marketing, and interacting with the media.
  • Youth sports need more professionally trained coaches who know both best practices in teaching a sport as well as first aid, CPR, and injury management training.

But athletics majors also address many of the problems identified in Wolverton’s article and make all of his suggestions significantly easier.

If coaches are professors for their athletes, they are integrated into the faculty without needing to find them something to teach. If the bulk of a coach’s teaching responsibilities involve coaching the varsity team, the coaching profession will likely be less resistant to the change. Hopefully as athletically-related majors grow, coaches end up teaching a greater and greater percentage of non-athletes.

A student-athlete’s total time commitment will be reduced, by creating a greater overlap of academic and athletic activities. All academic commitments will not disappear, since there will still be general education requirements as well as increased academic focus and study on a student-athlete’s athletic activities. But there will almost certainly be a reduction of total required activities, including those that are nominally voluntary.

Majors in athletics have a more indirect effect on student-athlete involvement in NCAA governance. That will require governance changes from the adults in charge of the NCAA or forced from the outside. But what it will do is make the experience of athletes more uniform, which means less chance that the athletes involved in NCAA governance have a different experience than other athletes, particularly those in revenue sports.

By making athletics an academic pursuit rather than an extra- or co-curricular activity, the case for stronger due process protections becomes almost impossible to oppose. It gets much harder to defend coaches being allowed to kick athletes off a team, much less take away their scholarships, without oversight because it would mean kicking students out of their major. Same for athletes who wish to transfer, since every transfer would be an academic transfer.

Finally, an athletics major brings with it a built-in job placement program by preparing athletes for jobs that coaches are familiar with. Coaches have the networks already, which they needed to build in order to get to the college level. Plus if the team is also part of the major, job placement becomes a part of the recruiting process like placing players in professional leagues is now.

The idea that college athletics is trying to strike an impossible balance is becoming a popular one, and numerous potential conflicts have been identified. The one noticed by Brad Wolverton is of athletics as an extracurricular activity which also generates significant revenue. The solution is to abandon the idea that varsity athletics is an extra curricular activity and turn it into the curriculum itself.

Do you think colleges should add an athletics major for athletes to their curriculum? Let us know in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

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