Monday, April 06, 2009

Academic Sport

Even in economically less troubled times, there is great tension, misunderstanding, and resentment between the academic and athletic components of Academe. There do exist professors who are big fans of their school's athletic teams, who attend sporting events, and who do not mind that the football coach makes >25 times their salary. I know 2, maybe 3, such professors, and at least one of them reads this blog.

It is easy to find faculty who resent the amount of money paid to certain coaches and who have unkind thoughts about administrators who approve the building of new stadia and who approve contracts that give large sums of money even to losing coaches when they are fired (has anyone ever proposed this for faculty who are denied tenure?). Most of the negative feelings are directed at football and/or basketball programs because of the money involved and because of issues with some student-athletes who may not be prepared for (or interested in) the academic aspects of being at a university. Such is the nature of those particular sports in relation to college-level athletics and professional sports teams.

I should explain that I am a failed student-athlete. I attempted to be on the swim team of my college, and although I did make it onto the team, barely, the practices so exhausted me that I spent each day dragging myself around in a daze until the next punishing practice.

I quit the team because I wasn't physically strong enough to handle that level of swimming, but my experience left me with respect for those who do manage to be successful at both academics and athletics. Academics alone can be all-consuming, but to be good at academics and something else (athletics or another extracurricular activity) is an accomplishment that should be respected.

I think most of us can appreciate the effort that goes into being a student-athlete, even those of us who are not interested in athletics, and we professors can certainly appreciate a motivated student, even if they are on the football team. The source of faculty resentment of sports does not arise from some inherent pointy-headed intellectual hatred of (certain) Sports, and by extension (certain) Athletes. The problems arise more from anger at administrative priorities that seem to place athletics above academics, and the more specific problem of individual negative experiences that some faculty have with 'non-academically-inclined' student-athletes.

A typical response to professorial complaints that too much money is spent on Sports is that some college sports attract a lot of money and school spirit (and therefore donations) etc. How many students select a university because of the research accomplishments of its faculty? In fact, one of my cousins based her choice of what university to attend on the quality of the football stadium. At the time, I was incredulous, but she is probably not as unusual as we professors like to think.

Many of my interactions with student-athletes in my classes have been very good; some of these students are impressive as people and as scholars. A substantial number of my interactions, however, have not been good. The more positive interactions tend to be with athletes in the sports that don't get much attention and that can't therefore make the we-bring-in-big-money-for-the-university argument, although I have recently experienced some unfortunate exceptions to this generalization. These recent negative experiences with whining, lying student-athletes are what precipitated this blog post, and writing this has helped me to step back and take a look at the larger issues rather than focusing on my annoyance with a few individuals.

At various times in the past I have had football and basketball (F-and-B) students in my intro science classes, but it has lately become very rare for them to take a course in my department, perhaps because a substantial number of these student-athletes failed the intro courses.

It is a relief to me that I haven't had any F-and-B students in my classes this year because these students typically requires a fair amount of extra work because they get to take make-up exams if they miss an exam owing to a sports-related activity and because the Learning Specialists who work with them are relentless. These staff members have a difficult job. I don't know how effective they are, but they are certainly good at sending out a lot of email messages that have no specific content about course material but that repeatedly ask for information about what Student-Athlete X can do to improve his performance in the class.

I think it is important that we professors do not automatically assume that a student-athlete is going to be a poor student with a bad attitude. I am working on reminding myself of this right now. We can still grumble about the ever-expanding mega-complexes devoted to sports as we pass by en route to buy our own dry-erase markers so that we can scrawl unintelligible words and phrases on the board while we drone on about whatever comes to mind in our classes that allow the university to keep busy between major sporting events, but we should not extend our resentment to the students, even when some of them make it difficult not to.


Anonymous said...

As a taxpayer I don't enjoy seeing my money wasted. I don't understand why public institutions put money into these programs. The ultimate scope creep IMHO.

they get to take make-up exams if they miss an exam owing to a sports-related activity

That's an issue. Students whose parents are sick do not have advocates for them on the university payroll. And single parents who are students -- I wish they had advocates on the payroll. How am I supposed to say no to any request when I've said yes to somebody playing a sporting game. I checked the mission statement. Sports are not in the university's mission.

Athletic advisers could request a copy of the syllabus during week one of the semester for each class their athletes take. Then they could work around the syllabi or even advise their students to drop certain classes. But athletic advisers don't plan ahead. Instead they wait until midterms and then want kid-gloves treatment. Good luck to any assistant professor whose dean endorses this boondoggle.

There's no travel money for faculty to go to conferences but there's travel money for the sports teams. Hey, WTF? Now that I think of it, there should be a journalism expose on this topic.

Whoah, ya hit a nerve, Female Science Prof.

Eugenie said...

Most people on campus here don't fully understand why we don't have a football team even though it's a pretty obvious reason- money.

I know what you mean about swimming, I lasted two years on the team here and I ended up quitting because I didn't want to continue shuffling my schedule around classes (and take less interesting courses- we practiced at least 18h per week). I also quit because of the continual pressure and harassment of my team mates to drink. (They love having the reputation of being the craziest partiers on campus... even go as far as to say that they are a "drinking team with a swimming problem").

The majority of the professors here are very supportive of the sports-however, I haven't bumped into a situation that would prove otherwise. Perhaps the fact that we are not a DI school helps...?

Alyssa said...

Great post - especially that you can see things from both sides.

It frustrates me to see that our university built a new, huge, athletic complex, and the heat in our building only works half the time.

On the other hand, I know a couple university athletes and they are amazing students (both are doing their PhD in physics now) - and I'm always in awe at how much they're able to do, and do it really well!

I guess no matter what the situation, there will always be people that surprise you (for good and bad).

Thomas Joseph said...

I was a student-athlete (on scholarship no less) when I was in college. I remember the difficulty I had in getting my departmental professors permission to travel some Fridays to attend sporting events (in which I was participating). Despite graduating with honors from my Alma Mater, it was a constant struggle and I eventually lost several such battles my senior year. Now, all I can remember is that I was cheated out of some moments that I would carry with me forever because particular parasitology quizzes (comprising stationary 10 microscope stations) couldn't be given to me 12 hours earlier or kept up over the weekend so I could come in Monday morning (as early as they needed) to take it.

I had always proven reliable (heck, I was the damn president of our student association), so why they wanted to bust my butt my final semester is beyond me. I will never forget it though.

lost academic said...

I think that our regular students make it about as hard for us as do our varsity athlete students, but it's easier to identify the athletes based on information given to us. I also know that the vast majority of athletes even at a large school with a lot of athletic money or prowess aren't treated the same way as other athletes are. Lots of people go to basketball and football games, in part because of television and professional leagues, and so that allows those teams to give lots of full scholarships and do other supportive things so that their students can succeed both on and off the team. But your average golf player, volleyball player, swimmer - they aren't getting that kind of money, they're probably working too, but they are spending the exact same amount of time practicing and training and competing in many cases. And they know they're never going to be famous or rich, probably, because of the sport - but they love it, it probably helped get them into a college they really wanted to attend, and no matter what the critics say, overall it's a help to those people for their future in many ways.

Average Professor said...

At some institutions (I don't know what proportion, but my own is included) the athletic department is an indpendent entity, with its own budget. Coaches salaries and new facilities are funded through athletics revenues or athletic donations (many of which I suspect would not flow to academic units if the donor was to put money elsewhere). So in my own job I get more annoyed to see university money being spent on, say, creating the fanciest possible dining halls, while considering cutting out valuable academic services (like entire departments).

But I do get annoyed at the number of handlers that student-athletes have. I get that they have time crunches and special needs that (some) other students don't have, but . . . I am not inclined to spend a disproportionate amount of my student-time devoted to student athletes just because they are student athletes.

Kevin said...

I'm teaching at a public research university that does not have any athletic scholarships.
(NCAA division III). I liked it better when there were just club sports, though, and intramural athletics was the socially relevant thing for students.

I teach classes that are too difficult for not-academically-inclined students, so I've seen few student athletes (one cheerleader in the past several years). The only things I've been asked to do are quite reasonable, and no more than other students have asked for (an extra weekend for one large assignment,turned in on Monday rather than Friday).

So far as I can see, athletes are doing sports for their own enjoyment, and it is a relatively healthy form of entertainment for the participants. I encourage it over sitting around drinking alcohol, but less than exercise activities that are easier to maintain over the long term (like bike commuting).

I'm glad I'm not in a school where athletes and coaches are treated as superior beings---it would irritate me frequently.

Anonymous said...

I was once asked to excuse a student for intercollegiate competition because he would be representing our school as a member of the "Meat and Carcass Evaluation Team".

What do you say to that?

It was a cow college, and the student was presumably in the Ag college, so at least it was related to his field of study, but still.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm impressed with your ability to step back and write about the big picture.

Personally, I dread the thought of working at a place with so much emphasis on athletic achievement. I wouldn't want to go to the games, and I wouldn't want to have Learning Nags emailing me about their charges. That must be incredibly infuriating.

Where I went to school, it was hard not to notice how unfair it was that the athletes got all kinds of special academic help, for "free".

At the time I thought my tuition must surely contribute to this, because our teams didn't do well enough to bring in lots of dough.

But in retrospect, I realize that even the bad teams probably bring in plenty of money, even if it's only by selling tickets to the home team's students.

Anyway, thanks for reminding me that this is something I want to ask about if I have any interviews at these kinds of places- how the team(s) affect the school's culture. If all the faculty are also die-hard fans, I'm not going to fit into that department!

Anonymous said...

During my educational/academic career I have happened to be at the two universities in the nation that receive the greatest sum of money from one particular donor. Both donors give heavily to the athletic team and both donors have also given towards more academic pursuits. Surprisingly, the donor that makes his money from athletic gear etc. has contributed more to the academic side of things and the other donor gives more towards the athletic side of things. I don't understand why my university has a huge football stadium that is brand new, but can't be used for any other event, only football.

But it is true, college sports can be a huge money maker for universities. However, I find it really unfortunate that the modern university seems to be ran more as money making business than an academic learning institution.

Why don't people wanna come watch me do science in the lab? Isn't it more exciting than football?

Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

I went to a Big 10 school for undergrad - During March you'd never know there was even such a thing as classes. Students (not just athletes) missed class to go to pep rallies and athletic gatherings - the athletes got special academic treatment (tutors, makeup exams, paper extensions, advocates) that the rest of us didn't, and the entire campus got shut down and a riot occurred when a popular coach got fired (Bobby Knight for the uninitiated) - it degrades the academic mission of the University when athletics become too much of a focus.

During the Knight incident (btw he was fired for abusing and threatening players although he was a "winner"), I wrote "I support the academic integrity of my school" on the board outside my dorm room (the Univ. President was being threatened and students were burning him in effigy) - I was called some nasty names for not standing behind the mob mentality. It's ridiculous. Public sculptures were defaced and stolen, cops cleared the streets, and there was a roaming mob with torches going from dorm to dorm and frat/sorority house to house to gather more marchers(I am not exaggerating - I watched it from my window). University athletics has become a cult in the biggest institutions.

This experience made a big impression on me and I chose a small college with no athletic programs for my graduate work.

amy said...

The AAUP has a good report on this, showing that athletic programs aren't necessarily money-makers; they usually break even, and that's after counting in the extra donations the school gets from alumni:

This is a tough issue. I've had some very bad experiences with athletes (football and men's basketball in my case), and some wonderful ones (especially with women's teams). The coaches make a big difference -- some of them stress academics, and some, well, don't.

I feel bad for some of the athletes. I've had a few who were genuinely illiterate -- they literally could not write a sentence. They had tutors, but the tutors' job was just to do the homework for them, not help them learn how to read and do it themselves. So these kids are getting an education that's going to do them very little good, they spend all their extra time doing sports instead of fixing their huge educational deficits, and their chances of getting into pro sports are very small. They're just being exploited. I suppose it's only four years of their lives lost, and they will have a diploma at the end, but it still seems wrong.

Jeremy D. Young said...

I personally believe that the Professional sports teams are milking the public for a free farm system in Football and Basketball. There is a line between Students who are Athletes, and Athletes who want to appear to be students. If a city wants to fund a semi pro team, then so be it. I don't think it should be associated with State schools in any way shape or form.

State Universities should be about academics only. All student activities should be subservient to their class load, and all students should have the same rules to follow about attendance and course load.

Private Universities should be able to do whatever they please. The tax payer should not be required to spend money on entertainment.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. My school recently announced a campaign to raise X billion dollars. of those x billion dollars, 42 million would be devoted to the students. Of the 42 million, 10 million would go to athletics, another 5 million (iirc...though I may be off on this one) would go to intermural sports and a measly 1 million would be dedicated to undergraduate research. I went to a very technologically inclined school--not many good football players. My freshman year we were like 4 games from our longest losing streak and we had the first winning season since my dad went to school there during my junior year when we dropped a division. Yet...the chancellor seems convinced that pouring money into athletics is somehow going to magically payoff. He has plans for a new rec center and football stadium when the elevator in our chemistry building is always broken and the ceiling is slowly deteriorating in our physics building.
i thought universities were where people could go to learn in a safe and hygienic environment? I must have been mistaken....

John Vidale said...

I view athletics as a separate part of my school, and one over which faculty have little control. Our main choice is whether in our courses we pass the less academically gifted ones if they exert moderate effort, or fail them based on inability to perform. Personally, I pass them if they try hard enough, no matter their skills.

Way above my level, with the president and the reagents, athletics are blessed as part of my universities. Every school except Caltech at which I've studied or worked has treated athletes leniently. I strongly suspect they subsidize the university, and energize the donor base. There is no double blind survey possible, and nearly every school, including the Ivies, takes the same approach.

It's like the science (we pay the overhead) versus humanities (we provide the core) debate. Or the equal admissions versus favoring the progeny of rich alumni debate. It's built into the rich and powerful US university system, in which we are thriving.

Fun to debate, but changes in our treatment of athletes would weaken our system. I think this applies to supplying tutors, high salaries for coaches, and preferential admissions for athletes.

LMB said...

I was a D-I college scholarship athlete [Track and Field] and am now a history professor at a D-III school where I also happen to be an assistant coach. I realize this is a pretty rare combination, and it's one often fraught with contradictions. As such, I found this post very interesting, especially the line:

"I think it is important that we professors do not automatically assume that a student-athlete is going to be a poor student with a bad attitude."

I wish more professors would remember this. I can remember a professor in college telling me, "athletes don't take this class," I told him I was, and went on to get an A.

Having been on both sides of the fence, most people assume I go easier on athletes. I'm actually just the opposite. Knowing how hard I worked to balance academia and highly-competitive athletics, I have little tolerance for athletes who want special treatment, but missing an exam for a competition is valid [as it is for a theatre performance, band concert, sick child etc,] providing the student takes the responsibility and initiative to make-up the work. I remember typing English finals on the bus, reading theory at meets, finishing my thesis in a hotel room in North Carolina. It can be done.

And I, for one, would rather see my students participating in an activity they are passionate about, staying in shape physically and mentally, and staying on top of school work, than wasting time playing video games, watching TV, drinking, etc.

BugMan said...

As a professor at a state univeristy who has taught several “GenEd” courses (some very large), I have dealt with my share of student athletes. In my experience, the proportion that are good, average, or bad students is not much different than the porportions in the general student population. While they are excused from classes, labs, and exams for intramural games, the same is true for concert choir performances, theater productions, student trustee meetings, etc. I have no problem with that, and they are required to make up the missed material.

They do receive some special services, such a tutors and academic advising, beyond that received by other students, but most of those benefits are also available to ordinary students who are willing to seek them out. In the case of the athletes, they are forced upon them. I wish more students would take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them.

I never anticipate poor performance by an athlete, or provide them with any special consideration. Unless they present me with a list of dates they will be at away games, I rarely even know they are athletes until it comes up in some casual context during the course. I once had the starting QB for our football team in a course (he got an A) and I never knew who he was until a year of so later. I really don’t follow collegiate sports that closely.

My perceptions may be colored by the fact that we are a Division II school, with nationally recognized programs in just two sports -- football and ice hocky (women and men). Athletics are secondary to academics for the vast majority of our student athletes, and their graduation rate is well above the average for the student population in general.

As far as money goes, I do find some fault with the extreemly high salaries paid to coaches in general. Our hockey coach is the highest paid employee at the univeristy, with a salary somewhat larger than the president … and we don’t even begin to compete with the salaries paid at “competitive” schools. When college sports become a business instead of an integral part of campus life, I think we have lost something.

Rachel said...

I like this post. I'm an undergrad at a D-III school, so I think the priorities and academic-athletic balance here are a whole lot better, but I still know of professors whose attitude isn't as good as yours. I get that we're in school to take classes, but students are also whole actual people with some additional non-academic interests. I have a friend who plays football and is majoring in the same science as me, and he actually had a prof tell him he could not possibly do the work necessary to achieve an A in her class. Considering she knew nothing about him or what other classes he was taking, I think that's pretty lame.

Anonymous said...

Sad student athlete story: a football student at Big State University who was leading the team to victory wanted to be pre-vet, but due to athletics eating up his time, was unable to take as many classes as most pre-vet students, or do as well in them. His athletics tutor convinced him to change majors to a "soft" major (I think it was communications) that would have a less stressful academic schedule. How sad is it that schools put such a priority on football (and other sports) that they are willing to discourage their athletes from learning while at college?!

EliRabett said...

The fundamental problem is that coaches can pull athletic scholarships on whim. This means that the athletes have to toe the line. They have no choice.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Bowen and Shulman's The Game of Life was an exceptionally interesting analysis of the student athlete. No matter how many QBs one may know who got an A in a particular class, recruited student-athletes (as FSP says, for basketball and football in particular, not so much for other sports) self-segregate at college, are unlikely to participate in any college extracurriculars besides their sports, arrive with significantly lower GPAs and SATs, and leave with majors in the softest subjects.

This does not mean that any individual student-athlete is necessarily going to be like this, but the aggregate picture is pretty depressing. Oh, and in a lot of places athletics do not, in fact, bring in money.

The upshot of their analysis was that if you have a wrestler, or volleyball player, or archer, etc, in your class, s/he will be indistinguishable from other students. But the vast size and stature of football teams means that their influence is disproportionate. I recommend the book.

Dr Spouse said...

In the UK athletic scholarships essentially do not exist (there are a few rowers at Oxford & Cambridge but they pay their own fees, though their academic merit is often dubious). But in my one semester teaching in the US I had a female student on a softball scholarship who was excellent - and a single parent - I don't know how she did it and I vowed never to dismiss athletic scholarship students again.

flit said...

I would have a very hard time responding to those emails from their tutors without being a ~tad~ snarky, I suspect!