Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

Athletic scholarships to U.S. colleges are worth defending

Let’s kill the athletic scholarship! A college campus is no place for ballplayers training for professional careers. You know what else is a scandal? How many culinary students end up cashing in as chefs! And don’t get me started on those med school kids whose only goals are to become doctors.

What an intolerable climate of professionalization we’ve created at our universities with division I-A football and basketball. How impure that some people should use college as an avenue to the NBA and NFL, and try to collect on their earning potential. We need to get rid of them, so that every campus can become an Ivy and serve nobler purposes — such as training 58 percent of Harvard’s grads to go into finance or consulting.

Stadiums and arenas take up valuable space where more legitimate classes might be taught, like “Introduction to Folklore,” and “Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity,” and “The Significance of Wolves and Lightning in 19th Century Literature.” What’s learned at a Final Four can’t possibly be as meaningful as what’s learned in the classrooms of most U.S. colleges, especially when it comes to ethics. An athlete accepting a backpack full of cash from an alum is much worse than Gordon Gee spending $700,000 in Vanderbilt University funds on catering.

God forbid that commercial interests should sully campuses — unless of course it means major corporations funding supposedly independent academic research. Or scholars sitting on corporate advisory boards and loading up with stock. Especially if it’s Goldman Sachs, and you’re the president of Brown.

All right, end of riff. The intention here is not to excuse the blooming sports scandals at Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Connecticut and Tennessee. It’s not to say the Fiesta Bowl is anything but a Caribbean slush fund.

It’s merely to say that our universities are highly commercialized places, touched by many forms of corruption, and they are used as farm systems all the time, by all kinds of professions. Why are we blaming athletes unduly for this?

The Drake Group, a coalition of reform-minded faculty, contend “the academic mission at many schools has been hijacked by the professional college sports entertainment industry.” As opposed to students being hijacked by Internet apps? The panic over the spate of NCAA scandals has drawn extreme suggestions ranging from paying players to killing the athletic scholarship altogether, courtesy of Ralph Nader, who wants to “de-professionalize” our campuses. To Nader, the scholarship is to blame for illegal recruiting, high school players put up for sale by parents and coaches, and the money-handshake by overinvolved alum.

As we consider the subject, let’s unpack some of the issues. First, the athletic scholarship is well worth defending, even if it’s hard at the moment to scrape it free of sludge. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving someone a free ride for having physical talent. People get scholarships for all kinds of things — band, art, public speaking. My friend’s sister won a scholarship for being third runner-up in the Colorado Junior Miss pageant, which required her to design a dress, play the guitar, and walk gracefully in heels.

Second, there is no need to pay players. They are not abused simply because the university makes money on them. So what. Yearly tuition at Auburn or Tennessee is over $37,000, and that doesn’t count the world-class professional training, the showcase in front of prospective employers, the medical care, the free head-to-toe Nike or Adidas gear, the plush travel and nice hotel rooms, and all the other exquisite privileges Division I athletes enjoy in exchange for their efforts.

They get a four-year ride free of the mountainous student loans that burden so many of their peers — a collective $900 billion worth. Ask any parent who is paying tuition what a scholarship is worth. Pay players? Please. We’re already paying them as much as a half-million dollars apiece over four years, maybe more. And we’ve done a lousy job of explaining that to them.

The crux of corruption in college sports is this: A relatively small number of high-profile athletes, isolated in two sports, enjoy scholarships (and perhaps some extracurricular salary) while having a very weak connection to their classrooms. The question is whether these few truly impinge on academic integrity.

I’m not saying the NCAA doesn’t have some serious problems. But there is nothing wrong that can’t be fixed by 18 strong college presidents — that’s how many seats there are on the NCAA executive committee — acting in concert to curb their own worst excesses, and impose stiffer penalties. It’s ludicrous for Gee, now the Ohio State president, to suggest he has no power over football coach Jim Tressel. Gee is an in-demand fundraising wizard and a corporate-board veteran whose leverage at Ohio State is far greater than Tressel’s, as he knows. He can impose discipline on the program any time he wants — and if he did, a lot of other presidents might grow the guts to follow his example.

The connection between sports and campuses is a long-lived one that goes back at least until 1829 and the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race. It’s always been a messy and uncomfortable connection, rife with temptations to cheat, but that’s actually part of what makes it rich and valuable, and it’s worth the exchange.

Intelligence, what little we understand about it, is based on the capacity to grasp relationships of all kinds. Not just the relationship between your own various limbs and skills, but your relationship to the objects around you, and to the people around you, starting with the person Monica Seles liked to refer to as “the other opponent.” It’s about trial and error, mastering direct and indirect stimulus, in order to learn that while you can’t master events, you can at least master yourself.

I don’t know that revenue-sports, basketball and football, are more valuable than any other performance-based learning experience, in which stakes are damn high and the audience brutally demanding. But they’re certainly not less valuable. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once praised sports as “high and dangerous action,” because, “in this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things . . .

One thing you learn in college is that comfort isn’t the only thing worth seeking. Sometimes the best questions are the ones that make us most uncomfortable.

 
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