Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the case for athletic majors

It's something that simmers up every now and then, with Jerry Ratcliffe's series of articles in the CDP the latest effort at pushing the University to consider re-evaluating its relationship between the school's academic side and its revenue sports. The usual centerpiece of the debate is the idea of adding majors that are more athletics-friendly than the ones we have now.

One caveat which is usually thrown in the debate and which is usually little more than a straw man is that "any new major must benefit the academic community at large." This distracts from the issue. A good football team is a benefit to the school. A good football team brings in publicity. Publicity brings in money. Teresa Sullivan has been at the University of Texas and the University of Michigan; two of the finest state schools in the country, and two which have benefited tremendously from having a powerhouse football team. But aside from that, it's a slap in the face to the football players and it runs counter to the notion of a student-athlete, to suggest that they are in a separate category from the rest of the students. Only here to play football, after which we're done with them. If the Maison Francaise needed renovating, it'd be ridiculous to ignore it because it benefits only those French majors that wanted an immersion program and not the "academic community at large." You wouldn't let the house disintegrate because it doesn't benefit chem majors, and the Maison Francaise is a lot smaller than the football team.

The usual major for a football player, as Ratcliffe points out, is anthropology, sociology, or psychology. It's quite the charade to pretend football players are going to be anthropologists when they graduate. The point is not to set it up so that football players can coast through. The point is to offer relevant majors, not easy majors. Usually, a football player's best skill is - get this - football. And that's true even for most of those who have no shot at the NFL. Quite a few of them will want to use that skill of theirs to earn a living, though, even if its not on the field. Why not offer a field of study that will help that out? We're not talking about "general studies" here. If a player wants to be a strength and conditioning coach, a kinesiology degree is what he needs. If he wants to go into the media, try communications. UVa offers neither of these.

Stanford offers communications, and how many of us think their academic reputation suffers for it? Michigan has a School of Kinesiology, and still manages to be a top academic school. U-M's School of Kinesiology has roughly 800 undergrads; adjusting for the relative sizes of the two universities, a similar program at UVa could attract perhaps 250-300 people when it gets up to speed. The football team isn't that large. Neither is the landscape architecture program or the Jewish Studies program, but we maintain them anyway.

Of course, the benefits of new programs could be debatable. I do think it would make UVa more attractive to potential recruits; certainly, it would help with the negative recruiting our coaches have to deal with. (Of course, coaches that use the "Why would you go where you can't graduate?" line are setting themselves up to have Mike London tell a kid, "Frank Beamer may think you're too stupid to graduate from UVA, but we don't.") But how many recruits, how many wins it'll result in, sure....that's debatable. Here's what the addition of a new major won't do:

- Cheapen existing or future degrees.
- Damage existing or future research endeavors.
- Cost the school its top professors.
- Cost the school its reputation.
- Cost the school its rankings.

You could argue that the creation of new programs will cost money and take up space that might have to be diverted from other programs. That's a consideration. But here's another one: the University has expanded admissions to the point where it's now 1,500 students larger than it was when I entered as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed first year. That's about $25 million per year in extra tuition dollars, and it'll be expanding even faster in the next decade. So, the school's cash flow is not shrinking. It can be done.

Anyone who thinks UVa should not try for excellence in football and basketball is in the wrong place. The ideals of the Ivy League are those of sacrificing sports in favor of academic.....I guess you'd call it "purity." Academic purity. However you put it, it's an attitude that academics are the only thing worth pursuing to the pinnacle. Fine for them, but I prefer a University that achieves excellence in everything it sets out to do. Even Oxford and Cambridge try like hell to beat each other in rowing. If I agreed with the Ivy League approach, I'd have applied to an Ivy League school; anyone who feels UVa should cut corners in football and basketball because it might risk what we've achieved in the academic world should have done the same. The school doesn't exist to serve football, but an investment in academics designed to improve performance on the football field is the correct acknowledgement of what football can do for the school.


Stormy said...

You should go back and find one of the Bylaw Blog's posts on "athletic performance" (like "music performance") or "athletic coaching" majors. Also, I am of an advanced age that I remember the Rhetoric and Communications Studies degree that many student-athletes earned back in the day. I think RCS was folded into English, and the reading & writing requirements are enough to scare non-athlete students away as well...

Anonymous said...

I wish you'd forward this post to Ratcliffe. He seems completely unable to make a coherent argument about this.