Ambition Beyond Athletics

April 5, 2011

Drake University’s football team will travel to Tanzania next month to play what many believe will be the first intercollegiate American football game ever on the continent of Africa. On May 21, the Bulldogs will play a game in the town of Arusha, on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, against a team of all-star American football players from an athletic conference of Mexican universities. After the game, the football players will do community service projects in and around Moshi — including building an addition to a local orphanage — stage a football clinic for local youth, and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as teams. All the while, Drake’s football players will be taking a for-credit course on leadership and emotional intelligence with top faculty.

Wonder what American football, the residents of a small town in Tanzania, and college athletes from Mexico and Iowa have in common? Confused as to the rationale for such a trip and the large financial investment (about $4,000 per person) behind it from Drake? Don’t be, say Drake officials, who signal that the upcoming service-learning and cultural-exchange trip is indicative of what they have planned for the future of their athletics program. Drake unveiled an athletics strategic plan last year that aims to turn the university into “a national model for the integration of success in intercollegiate athletics and high academic achievement” and plans to introduce formal leadership training for all its athletes both on the field and in the classroom.

The plan is the brainchild of Sandy Hatfield Clubb, Drake’s director of athletics. Clubb believes that, traditionally, when people talk of integrating athletics and academics, they mean “that the student-athlete’s academic assimilation and student life are part of, and not separate from, the general student body.” By most National Collegiate Athletic Association measures, Drake does this exceptionally well. For example, its athletes have higher graduation rates than its general student body, and among the highest in all of Division I.

In this way, Drake resembles its rival, Butler University, which has achieved national acclaim in men’s basketball; both institutions have solid academic programs but are also generally seen as competitive in the high-profile world of Division I athletics.

But Clubb wants more. Not only does she want Drake to reach the small cohort of institutions that excel at the very top levels of academics and athletics — like Duke University and Stanford University — she wants to create something that she thinks doesn’t yet exist in Division I athletics.

“We’re challenging ourselves to integrate higher learning into sport itself, so that you actually study sport and leadership,” Clubb explained. “We want to take sports and create an experiential-based learning opportunity for our student-athletes. We want our coaches to integrate leadership learning into what they’re already doing as coaches. We spend millions a year on sports. That’s an incredible amount of money. We shouldn’t leave to chance that students are going to intellectualize it. Let’s make athletics truly co-curricular. Let’s look at the sports experience as something for athletes to study and understand in the context of higher education.”

The athletics strategic plan has some lofty long-term goals, such as “student-athletes perceive the value of their athletic experience as a significant component of their curricular education” and “Drake University student-athletes are highly sought by top potential employers and graduate programs.” And though Clubb admits it may take a few years to reach them, she has outlined some concrete methods to make this brand of leadership education common practice at Drake.

For instance, Drake is currently developing a mandatory leadership program for athletes and coaches with the Institute for Excellence and Ethics, a New York-based nonprofit organization. Clubb envisions that athletes will be required to take six non-credit seminars per academic year that explore leadership. Eventually, she wants to create a four-year certificate program in leadership specifically for athletes that would require them to take certain for-credit courses and do substantive community service.

“We want to become the new paradigm for how to do intercollegiate athletics,” said Clubb, noting that Drake’s project is especially needed now that critics are complaining more than ever of the bloat and commercialism of Division I athletics. “We need to live our story. We need to be committed to our mission.”

Clubb already has buy-in from coaches like Chris Creighton, head of Drake’s football team, who came to the university three years ago with the idea of doing a service learning-type trip to Africa. (He had led two such trips to Europe and Central America with his football teams at Wabash College, a small Division-III institution in Indiana.)

“I think this is trying to take us to a whole 'nother level,” Creighton said of the plan to revamp athletics at Drake. “I think [Clubb and I] see things similarly. I don’t just want to be a football coach, if football coaching is just about Xs and Os. I want to develop character in these young men, and help them determine who they are and how to be great.”

As for how his football team’s upcoming trip to Tanzania fits into the larger institutional plan for athletics, Creighton believes the trip will give his players a new outlook on life, a chance to help others and learn what leadership is all about. He said he was changed by a trip he took as a teenager to Haiti for a similar service-type trip.

“Ever since I’ve been a head coach, I’ve had a crystal clear vision of what a football team I’m in charge of can be,” Creighton said. “I want to make football at Drake one of the most important experiences of their life. I think any trip to a developing or third-world country can significantly impact your life. I think it has the potential to fundamentally change who they are, their perceptions and maybe what they want to do in their life. It’s not going to impact every player in the same way.”

Also, he noted the trip is already engaging some of the institution's professors. Faculty members, including those running the leadership course, are slated to travel with the team to Tanzania. Creighton said he also heard from some university officials that there are talks of future academic exchanges between Drake and the Mexican institutions whose players are competing against Drake on the gridiron in Africa.

Matt Bowie, a sophomore biology major and tight end on the football team, said he and his teammates have been looking forward to the trip since learning about it last spring. And not just because they are slated to play in what looks to be the first American football game ever in Africa.

“The general consensus I get from the team is that we’re all looking forward to the cultural experience we’re going to have with the Tanzanian youth and things like that,” Bowie said. “Also, working together with the Mexican team, with someone who is culturally totally different, is going to be a big part of it.”

Bowie added that he is supportive of the larger efforts to integrate formal leadership training into athletics at Drake, even if it means more obligations for already busy athletes. Still, he said Drake already attracts athletes who are interested in leadership.

“As college athletes, we’re in a unique position to lead people,” Bowie said. “We have people looking up to us already without getting to know us off the football field. Still, when we take off our jerseys, we lose that to some extent. To have the leadership capacity that college athletes have and to learn how to use that and go anywhere is a good thing. It’s an opportunity that not many students have.”

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