NCAA colleges should consider offering sports as an academic major

Sally Jenkins
Columnist October 5, 2011

If we would quit being half-ashamed of college sports and assign them some real value, we might just cure some of their corruptions. The NCAA should stop treating athletic departments as ticket offices attached to universities like tumors and instead treat them as legitimate academic branches. In fact, why shouldn’t we let kids major in sports? Aspiring athletes should be able to pursue their real interest, as a business and an art.

High-performance athletes study a craft, with a science, theory, history and literature, just like music or dance or film majors do. Varsity athletes deserve significant academic credits for their incredibly long hours of training and practice, and if they fulfill a core curriculum they deserve degrees, too. A school could design a rigorous Performance of Sport major by requiring the following:

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Introduction to Sports Law: a broad overview of antitrust law, labor law and contract law, via memorable sports legal battles such as Tarkanian v. NCAA, and Flood v. Kuhn. Textbook: “Sports Law: Cases and Materials” by Michael J. Cozzillio and Mark Levenstein.

The Origins of Sport: A survey of the history of ritual athletics from the Bronze Age to the modern Olympics. Textbooks: “Combat Sports In the Ancient World,” by Michael Poliakoff and “Reading Football” by Michael Oriard.

Making Up the Rules: an ethical-studies examination of moral and philosophical issues from amateurism to performance enhancement. Textbook: “Ethics in Sport,” edited by William Morgan.

Sports and Public Policy: how our sports-entertainment industries intersect with economics, urban planning, public health, and political science. Textbook: “Sport and Public Policy: Social, Political, and Economic Perspectives,” by Charles Santo and Gerard Mildner.

Think about it. Why is an Alabama football player or Tennessee women’s basketball player less worthy than a Yale drama student? According to Yale’s Theater Studies course guide, drama students learn a “complex cultural practice,” and “combine practical training with theory and history, while stressing creative critical thinking.” Now substitute the word sport for theater. Isn’t sport a complex cultural practice with a body of knowledge, history, and theory? Just to be sure I haven’t jumped the shark, I e-mailed the director of the Yale Theater Studies program, Toni Dorfman, to ask whether this is nonsense. “What a wonderful idea,” she replied. “The theory and practice of sport are certainly as ancient as those of theater.”

With a fundamental shift in the way we think about college sports, by designating them intellectually worthwhile exercises instead of mere obsessions, we might gain some clarity. For one thing, the worth of an athletic scholarship would suddenly be clearer. We could stop worrying about “exploiting” athletes and whether to pay them. Yale drama undergraduates don’t get a cut of the box office — their recompense is first-rate training for the stage. They aren’t exploited. They’re privileged.

Too many college presidents harbor the secret conviction that athletics are trivial, if not evil, entertainments that exist merely to please donors. Back in 2004, former NCAA president Myles Brand was scandalized to learn that some schools gave athletes limited academic credits for varsity participation. “We can’t have that,” he said.

That attitude has to change. Sports aren’t trivial. Among the things college athletes strive to learn: how to bring their best every day, how to deal with the fact that their minds and bodies will betray them under pressure, how to accept the consequences of public performance, and how to withstand violence or pain and create something beautiful and excellent despite it — or even from it. The vast majority of them, even the so-called cheats and chokers, are highly focused, dedicated, self-appraising, self-motivated and highly aspirational.

The NCAA’s stated mission is “to integrate intercollegiate athletics so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount.” So do it. Stitch college sports into the rest of the university by recognizing their value as an academic major. Once college presidents make that fundamental shift in their thinking, they might be inclined to make other changes too. They might mandate that athletics be answerable to an academic dean, like any other discipline. They might decide that coaches should be faculty members who teach.

“Athletics needs to be acknowledged as something legitimate and serious,” says Oriard, a former Notre Dame and NFL football player who is now an associate dean and literature professor at Oregon State. Given that college sports have become multibillion dollar industries and national institutions, he says, students should “understand the ethical, cultural, social and historical dimensions of their activity.”

Oriard observes that athletes devote as much time to their craft as a student violinist, and “there is an intelligence that is required of athletes that is similar to music, too.” We congratulate music majors for their passion, and tell them that even if they don’t make it in the symphony, they are acquiring an art and a method of thought that will be theirs forever. But for some reason we tell athletes who aspire to the highest levels that they are academically illegitimate, and look down on them as vocational students (forgetting that without vocational students, our cars wouldn’t start).

But what if we taught and talked to them differently? What if we pulled available college courses together into a more coherent, meaningful way for them, instead of herding them into General Studies. What if we taught that athleticism, like musicality, is a “lifelong discovery,” Oriard says. Above all, surely we should teach that their performance “is valuable in itself,” quite apart from commercial value.

Such thinking would not only benefit athletes, it would sharpen the decision-making of administrators. Because frankly, any resistance to this idea begs the question, “Then why have sports on campus at all?” Why do universities build sports stadiums? Well, why does a university build a hospital? Not to gouge and rip off the infirm for profit. They do it because the research and teaching in a hospital is vital and enhances a university’s standing.

There’s no reason the NCAA can’t reconcile commerce with education in a more honorable way. If presidents see athletes as worthy students, instead of unpaid labor, then they themselves might act more like educators, instead of carnival barkers grabbing for easy cash. What a concept. College sports are salvageable. But first, we have to correct an underlying fallacy — that despite all that money, they are worthless.

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