October 15, 2003

Athletics versus Academics

We also found that recruited athletes -- defined as those applicants included on a coach's list -- enjoy a significant admissions advantage over other applicants. That advantage was most pronounced in the Ivy League, where recruits were four times more likely to be admitted than similarly situated applicants who were not on a coach's list, but it was present and substantial in each group of colleges for which we have data...

...In addition, recruited athletes earn far lower grades than both their fellow athletes who were walk-ons and other students. At the Ivy League universities, 81 percent of recruited high-profile athletes were in the bottom third of the class, as were 64 percent of recruited lower-profile male athletes and 45 percent of recruited female athletes. A similar pattern was present in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.

-- William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, "Revisiting 'The Game of Life': Athletics at Elite Colleges"

The above-linked article is excerpted from Bowen and Levin's new book entitled Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values. Arguing that the gap between athletics and academics is widening, the authors speak of "an urgent need to recognize that the traditional values of college sports are threatened by the emergence of a growing 'divide' between intercollegiate athletics and the academic missions of many institutions that are free of the special problems of 'big time' sports." Their study seeks to demonstrate the extent to which college athletes now inhabit a separate culture, in order to call for a return to "sports as a part of campus life, not as mass entertainment." (For a "Swarthmore-specific [yet also nationally resonant]" response to Bowen and Levin, see Timothy Burke's Welcoming the Walk-On).

Peter Slovenski says he has the answer to this widening gap between academics and athletics. In "Let's Bring Back the Teacher-Coach," he proposes a "simple and inexpensive way to clean up college sports: College presidents should make coaches eligible for tenure." Just as "the protection of tenure allows professors to teach controversial material or opinions without fear of reprisals," so too would the protection of tenure allow college coaches to "teach athletics and character without fear of losing their jobs if their teams don't always win." I doubt this represents a "simple" and I'm pretty sure this would not be an "inexpensive" solution.

Slovenski notes that "tenure existed for coaches during much of the 20th century, often involving the same formal procedures used for professors." In the next line, however, he speaks not of coaches but of physical-education instructors: "from 1900 through 1970, physical-education instructors generally had job security rivaling that of professors, which allowed coaches to teach and coach without being preoccupied with winning." If I am reading this correctly, tenure existed not for coaches but for physical-education instructors who served as coaches. I think this is a significant difference.

In any case, Slovenski wants to revive the teacher-coach and return to a model which

started to disappear as colleges gradually switched their athletics programs from the education model to the professional-sports model during the 1970s, when the rise of televised sports transformed collegiate athletics culture. Television fueled a shameless chase for glory and money by alumni, administrators, coaches, and parents.

Though Slovenski attributes the demise of the "academic tradition of teacher-coaches" to the rise of televised collegiate sports, he also assigns a good deal of blame to faculty:

Faculty members have correctly found much to criticize in college athletics, as the partnership between athletics and education has been corrupted. Trying to win games and fill stadium seats is not the same as trying to excel in character and skill. But faculty members should recognize how they contributed to the demise of the older, more-academic traditions of sports. Viewing modern athletics culture as an opponent of academic culture, professors led the way in abolishing physical-education requirements and de-emphasizing physical-education departments. But faculty members should have remembered the wisdom of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Athletics culture became more difficult to control once it was outside the academic system.

Is that really fair? I have to wonder. Did academic faculty actively create and promote an opposition between athletics and academics? Or did academics' newer view of athletics culture as an opponent of academic culture represent a response to a gap that had already been created and promoted by those in charge of athletics? And how much of the pressure to abolish physical-ed requirements came from students themselves?

Slovenski is surely correct to suggest that when coaches "came from the physical-education department and were on the tenure track, the academic mission of higher education had a powerful influence over athletics." But he almost certainly underestimates the difficulties of returning to "the better way of the past." In contrasting the insecure position of coaches with the security enjoyed by faculty, he relies on a notion of academic faculty privilege that seems outmoded at best. Failing to recognize that almost half of all faculty teaching at 4-year colleges and universities are now outside the tenure track, Slovenski calls for the extension of a form of protection that has been under attack these last twenty years. Given the steady erosion of tenure for academic faculty, a process that has intensified over the past decade, the idea that tenure for coaches would be "simple" and "inexpensive" seems more than a little naive. Moreover, though his proposal explicitly links the extension of tenure to the revival of an earlier teacher-coach ideal, I can't help imagining a rather different scenario: that is, tenure for coaches not as an incentive to return to "the older, more-academic traditions of sports" but rather as a reward for success in the "big sports" game that has replaced this earlier tradition.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 15, 2003 10:20 AM

I went to North Carolina State Univ. from 1992-1996 (a "big sports" university), and there was a PE requirement for everybody: a PE101 class that included a state-mandated swim test (if you failed, you had to take a swimming class), 3-mile run, and weight-lifting requirements. In addition to that one course, you had to take 3 others (I took weightlifting, rock climbing, and social dance). We had a decent gym for the general students. PE had nothing to do with the athletes, in general. The football and basketball coaches did not teach PE classes; some of the other varsity coaches =did=. And, further, the athletes in the money sports of football & basketball had their own gym. The PE department didn't really have that much to do with the major sports.

Posted by: meep at October 16, 2003 10:41 AM

"The PE department didn't really have that much to do with the major sports."

Interesting. My guess is that those invested in the "big sports" model don't want teacher-coaches and don't want the PE department to have much to do with major athletics.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 16, 2003 10:56 AM

In my days as a graduate student at an anonymous midwestern research institution, I heard rumors that the famed coach of the basketball team actually taught classes on occasion in the Sports Science department. I have no proof, of course.

I went to the University of Chicago in the early 1990s as an undergraduate, and they still had a PE requirement often taught by coaches. U Chicago had to have one of the least athletic groups of undergraduates in the country, so it was amusing to have to flop around in a pool or do basketball drills.

On an entirely different athletic-academic subject, part of the tenure process for faculty at my obscure school depends on attending social events that have nothing to do with teaching, research, or even service.

I am playing basketball in a faculty and staff vs. student game on a Saturday night this semester. I was told it would be a good move to get in with the college's president, who always goes to the game. I'm not doing it entirely for that, but one might gather how the tenure evaluation process at my school works based on the fact anyone would even tell me that.

Could schools institute a special form of tenure and/or hiring in which job application and/or people applying for tenure could opt for a "physical challenge" as opposed to the orthodox interview or tenure application process? I'd love to say I didn't get tenure because I couldn't hit the three-pointer consistently.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 17, 2003 09:06 AM

i need this

Posted by: larry baker at February 11, 2004 11:42 AM