Athletes Aren't Different

It's a great time of year if you're a sports fan. The NFL is in full swing, and college football is coming to the inconclusive end of its season (save for the weird six-weeks-later coda of the bowl games). The NBA and NHL are just starting up, and most importantly, college basketball season has just started.

The abundance of sports, particularly college sports, at this time of year makes it a great time to be a fan. Unfortunately, the fact that both college football and college basketball (the biggest of the big-money sports) are in season at the moment also means that this is the peak season for sanctimonious discussions of how college athletics are the root of all evil.

You get some of this from both sides-- various people were defending the ludicrous college football bowl system last week on the grounds that their messed-up non-championship is all For the Good of the Students (oddly, they can't really explain why Division III has both a playoff system, and a vastly larger number of schools who are serious about academics). Most of the sanctimonious crap comes from people who are opposed to college sports, though.

The chief argument is always some variant on "These 'student-athletes' don't belong in college, and aren't serious about education. They're just using college as a stepping-stone to a career in the NFL or the NBA."

There's some truth to this, of course, but at the same time, you have to ask whether this is really different than the rest of the student body.

After all, the number of students in college who are really and truly interested in learning for its own sake is pretty small. They're the ones who go on to graduate school, and become professional academics.

Most of the rest of the students are there because college is a stepping-stone to a better career than they otherwise would be able to get. They don't care all that much about education per se, they care about getting the degree they need to get a good job after graduation.

Anybody who has taught has seen dozens of these students. They're probably the majority in most introductory classes, and there are certain disciplines where they tend to really pile up.

They're the ones who ask "Will this be on the exam?," as if learning is a zero-sum game, and remembering some extra fact that they won't be tested on will tie up neurons that are needed for some more important task.

They're the ones who ask "What is this good for?," in a tone that suggests that anything without immediate practical applications is beneath them.

They're the ones who put twice as much effort into figuring out ways to weasel around curricular requirements than would be needed if they just took the classes and did the work that they're supposed to do.

So, yeah, there are a lot of football and basketball players marking time in college, doing the absolute minimum required to squeak by with their eligibility intact, waiting until they can go pro. They're not alone, though-- huge numbers of their classmates are marking time in exactly the same way, though their final goal is a middle-management job at a Fortune 500 company, not an eight-figure signing bonus and a shoe contract.

If we're going to start chasing people out of colleges because they're not really serious about getting an education, we're going to lose a whole lot more than the football and basketball teams.

When you get down to it, there's really not that much difference between big-time college athletes and most of their peers and classmates. They're in college not so much for the education, as for the credential it gives them to go on to some later career.

As academics and educators, our hope is that some of them will come for the credentials, and discover an interest in education along the way. Some class will "click" for them, and they'll say "Hey, that's pretty cool!" Or it might be a slow accumulation of classes, as they plod through the catalogue requirements, and gradually discover that they've learned a lot without being aware of it. Either way, a whole new set of possible futures will open before them.

It doesn't happen all that often, but every now and then, it does (probably about as often with athletes as non-athletes). On some level, that's what keeps people in the teaching game-- the hope that they'll be there for the moment when everything suddenly falls into place for some student who never thought of themselves as that sort of student.

It's worth a lot of paper-grading, when it happens.


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I think you're misconstruing the argument. The problem is not that athletes are the only ones who don't care about learning, it's that they get full scholarships and less stringent admission requirements (or maybe certain requirement deficiencies are "overlooked").

I believe a group that is more analogous to scholarship athletes is students of the extremely wealthy. Often they lack the academic rigor to attend top level schools (like athletes, their high school records may have been "creatively" constructed) and they can get special privileges in their courses. These people often have jobs already lined up in family businesses or somesuch, so college is simply a formality.

I went to a private college where these students were prevalent. Some who struggled in classes went on to fairly prestigious law schools. For them, like top athletes, college is an inconvenience on the way to their predestined professional work.

I love this post! For one, it demonstrates what I believe is true about most college students - they're not here for the "education," they're here to get the job they want or to make big money. I don't think that's inherently a bad thing, however; it's really just the way that they choose to handle their college educational experience.

I believe that education is not really about the classes taken and the tests passed, but rather about proving to yourself and others that when faced with a large task, you can handle it and handle it well. When I teach, I'm not concerned that students remember the various microarray platforms - they can always look those up. Rather, I want them to be able to think their way through a problem involving microarray. I feel that this is the most importan aspect of education - learning how to learn.

By Wyatt McMahon (not verified) on 18 Nov 2008 #permalink

I'm with dkw here. The athletes are different than those unmotivated students, because the athletes get money from the university to be there. Another difference is that many of these scholarship athletes will not make any pro league (while most of the unmotivateds can find appropriate white-collar work). The effort exerted to prepare them for a job that does not exist arguably does them a disservice, because it leaves them unready for a world that is no longer interested in doing them favors. I like college sports as much as anyone, but I'm not at all convinced that they are an appropriate part of a university's mission, or that the ROI is sufficient to justify them.

Many other countries have colleges which study and promote sport as a speciality, but do any other countries have the USA's system of nominally academic colleges acting as the main feeder to professional leagues?

It may seem perfectly natural when you have grown up within that system, but to outside eyes it looks a bizarre mixture, especially when the oddity of drafting is mixed in too!

I love football, but college football, college athletics in general, is a joke. While there certainly are a few exceptions, most of them would never qualify for entry in college and certainly would never pass the courses required to graduate or even stay enrolled.

Not only do they get in without actually meeting the requirements, they get a full scholarship, special housing, catered meals, tutoring, and many other benefits, both openly and covertly.

All of this at a time when most schools are pricing themselves well out reach for most families. Is it any wonder why people are questioning college athletics?

I agree with you, that the athletes aren't any less interested in scholastics than other students. I still think that Div I sports are problematic, for two reasons. First, there are some student-athletes who would like to get a real education (even if not purely for education's sake), but they don't have time because training for the sport is essentially a full time job.
More damaging to the institution, though, is the way the sports become the focus. A year or two ago, my state had a budget crisis such that the university was forced to cut academic assets (e.g. staffing, library hours). However, the football coach wanted a new stadium, so the state legislators banded together to get the money to build it.
I get that a lot of people like sports. But a televisable sport costs a lot of money, that only a rare few universities make back from the sport itself. I guess I'm frustrated that administrators prefer skyboxes to being in charge of an excellent learning institution.

While I agree with many of your points, I think it's a little unfair of you to say, or at least imply, that only the students that go on to graduate school and become professional academics are the ones who are interested in learning for its own sake.

I didn't go on to become a professional academic, but what's wrong with being an amateur one? I read plenty o' science books (and a few science blogs) as an exercise in learning for its own sake. Sure, it's not as structured as it would (probably) be if I took a graduate degree.

And the learning may not be as deep as it would be in school either (though that's as much a function of what and how I choose to read and learn), but I'm learning something.

Don't underrate amateur academics.

I agree: the students who ask "Will this be on the exam" or "What's this good for" are irritating, but maybe some of them can be nurtured into people who do like to learn just because they find out cool stuff, even as they're doing their middle management job. Or passing the ball downfield.

By Wilson Fowlie (not verified) on 18 Nov 2008 #permalink

If we compare two entering students, both not quite ready, both just interested in a future job, the difference between the athelete and the non athelete is that the institution will make a much greater effort to retain the athelete than it will for the non athelete. For one thing, the institution has a greater investment in the athelete than it does in a similar non athelate. That investment is jepordized if the athelete does not maintain academic elegiability.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 18 Nov 2008 #permalink

What dkw (#1) and Jim (#5) are overlooking is that this isn't just about Division I glamor sports. Most colleges are Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships, and even where there are scholarships, there is no incentive to admit a student athlete who is significantly below standard to play a sport that is not a money maker for the college. And make no mistake, most sports are money losers. Yes, you do find cases in Division I glamor sports of athletes who should not have been admitted. There are NCAA rules intended to prevent the worst abuses, and most college sports programs do not abuse it.

Let's compare with another group that is disproportionately likely to be admitted with substandard academic credentials: legacies. At many private colleges, you have a better chance of getting in if your parent or grandparent (or in some cases uncle/aunt or sibling) graduated from there. I don't hear anywhere near the amount of whining about these policies, yet in a way they're worse than the academically substandard athlete, who at least is good at something. Classic example of a legacy admit: George W. Bush, who without his family connections would have been correctly viewed (by anybody who knew him) as a nobody.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Nov 2008 #permalink

Actually Eric, if you had read my whole post, you'll see that I was talking about the same thing as you, except today it's not as much about legacies, it more about how much money you'll give the school while your child is there. There isn't the requirement anymore that a relative must have attended the school before.

I used to teach a non-math physics course, popularly known as "Physics for Football Players." Actually the best student I ever had in the course was on a wrestling scholarship. The worst were the teachers who needed a certain number of hours of science credit to qualify for higher pay.

I'll start worrying about the academic standards for athletes after someone convinces me I can stop worrying about the academic standards for teachers.

By Bob Hawkins (not verified) on 18 Nov 2008 #permalink

I'm no big fan of college sports (I went to UMichigan for grad school and never made it to a football game) and it is obvious that many athletes get special treatment which they don't deserve on the grounds of academic achievement. And I don't think the argument that athletes are just like the rest of the student body holds much water.

But it's far from obvious that preferential treatment for athletes or a bunch of money sunk into a football program is a net drain on universities and colleges. I would suspect that a large amount of the giving/philanthropy that such institutions enjoy come from alumni whose primary connection to the school is that they attend the homecoming game every year. Then there is the money made on ticket and merchandise sales. Also the affect on recruitment of the "normal" student body (the part that pays tuition).

One would have to run the numbers, which will be institution dependent, to see if a given school makes a gain on the sports program or not.

Not sure there is a serious argument here, athletes are different in so many ways, but I'll bite - here is another difference. Some students and athletes have their head screwed on right, and they really are interested in obtaining a good education. In most schools such students will find an encouraging environment, but I expect that in most division 1 schools (like the university of Texas where I tutored athletes for a few years), athletes will find that they were hired to do a job, and time consuming hobbies are not what they are paid to do with their time.

To Josh: community connection is very important for an academic institution, and college sports is one good way of keeping that connection. This good idea gets distorted however when the teams become semi-professional. In other word the argument is not so much against college sports, but against the scale of money involved, which qualitatively changes the operation from community oriented outreach activity to a profit oriented organization (which is unique in being allowed to withhold pay from its primary set of employees).

"certain disciplines where they tend to really pile up."
We call them community studies / philosophy students here at UCSC. Easiest way to get that piece of paper...


Of course the cost in terms of scholarships might be lower at DIII schools, but that doesn't mean there are no costs. Equipment, coaches, tutoring, facilities, and athletics administrative staff all take money out of a university's budget. Most schools are not able to make that money back, especially in DIII where there is little income to be had from licensed merchandise or television deals. Many of these athletic departments lose money, and if they do nothing to further the academic mission then what is the justification for that expense?

There's an interesting article today by Andy Staples on that's relevant to this discussion:…
Apparently, Ball State's spending on its football program is 300% of program revenue. I hope that 10-0 record is worth it.

I should really know better than to post something deliberately provocative on a day when I'm home with the baby. SteelyKid demands enough of my attention and energy that I'm even less likely to respond to comments than usual. The one quiet period I had with the computer was before the comments really started coming in, and I spent it making silly graphs.

Rather than attempting to answer all of these at once, I'll promote my response to a full post, sometime tomorrow.

Well, generalizing from an N=1 anecdote ... when I was a TA I had a quarterback in my class, at a school rather famous for its football team. It was a summer class. I don't know if he failed the previous physics or had some other reason for taking it in the summer. But he was pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of the students in the class. He did his work, performed on par with everybody else there, and was a nice guy. Maybe it's different with other students or at other schools, but I don't get all the hate.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 19 Nov 2008 #permalink

@Sparky: That was exactly my point. The question Chad posed was whether there was any significant difference between athletes and other students. We agree that there is no incentive in these cases to admit athletes who are not academically qualified.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Nov 2008 #permalink

My response @

I am suffering because of students like this.

Because I am working on a mathematics degree and taking graduate school prep courses, and trying to prepare for linguistics graduate school, AND taking extra courses so that I can converse with other academics, my GPR is awful. I honestly am lucky to make C's in my courses, as they are hard as hell.

I've had to almost abandon all hope of graduate school, both for monetary and grade reasons. And yet I know that if I had wanted, I could have come in as a business major, done less work, organized my classes to be as easy as possible, ignored any other subject so I could get out in 3 years, and ultimately end up making more a year than I will ever see even IF I make it to my Ph.D.

It really makes me wonder.

Lingsuit@20: In order to find work as an academic you need a master's degree or a doctorate. Either way you need to get into grad school, and you probably need a pretty good grad school to be a plausible candidate in a competitive job market. That's not going to happen with C's in your principal courses. You need at least a strong B average, and are up against other applicants with A's.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 20 Nov 2008 #permalink

Two things.

First, my argument against college athletics is that college athletes are advised against doing anything that might interfere with their eligibility, including taking even moderately challenging courses. They are clearly not getting an education, obvioulsy not getting paid (for very rare skill set) so they are making endless amounts of money for the university with no compensation. This is inherently a bad thing.

Second, how long has it been since some of you were students? Very often, in my experience, they are asking "Will this be on the exam" not bexcause they want to do the bare minimum, but because they are trying to prioritize - to figure out what of the prof was talking about for 50 mkinutes is actually the important material, and which was not. For me, learning this was a big step, but it took a while to be confident that I wouldn't be wrong.

By Johnny Chimpo (not verified) on 21 Nov 2008 #permalink

My comment on the bowl "system" is similar to yours (except I would mention Division 2 and the FCS f.k.a. Division 1 AA to emphasize that even DIVISION ONE programs have a playoff, not just ones where the student athletes don't even have scholarships) except with a different perspective.


When I was a kid, major college teams played 10 games in 10 weeks. Almost all were within the conference, with a few games against teams from other *major* conferences. Bowls were a reward, and were not even included in figuring out who won the mythical national championship. The minor bowls were populated by minor teams from minor conferences, because the major conferences limited their teams to a single bowl. One university, Notre Dame, did not go to any bowls because it would interfere with education. Bet you didn't know any of that!

Now the regular season has 12 games (albeit including a fair number of lower division games that I think should count as losses just for playing them), and coaches complain that a playoff would take too much time. Uh, no. You could play 11 games, or 10 plus a conference championship, to determine the automatic and at-large bids, then have an 8 team playoff -- and most teams would play fewer games than today.

Better yet, there would be seven *huge* games to sell, not just one, that should generate more revenue, a lot more revenue, than that 12th game against Pootwattle Teachers College.