“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.