Universities should create a sports performance degree for athletes (essay)

Colleges and universities prepare students for almost all professions of note -- except sports. To be sure, we have students pursuing degrees in sports management, kinesiology, and other related fields, but unlike students who come to study music performance, acting, creative writing and other talent- and performance-based professions, our students who come with athletic talent and seek opportunities to perform are left out of the academic curriculum.

This is a significant omission, for as we all know, sports is big business. It is one of America's major entertainment industries, and surely rivals orchestras, theaters, operas and movies as professional post-college employment venues. We provide degrees in music performance, we have superb academic programs in opera focused on the production of major entertainment products by the university, and we have countless theatrical productions produced on campus by students majoring in acting.

When we teach our students the profession of sports performance, however, whether in football, basketball, tennis, or track, we deny them the structure and benefit of a focused curriculum and degree.

It's time for the sports performance degree. As anyone who watches the college sports enterprise knows, the profession of sports performance (that is, being a professional athlete, whether on the golf tour or in professional baseball) is demanding, highly technical, and requires a combination of talent, skill, training, preparation, and dedication.

One only needs to observe the increasingly sophisticated methods and techniques required of baseball and football players, or the careful analysis that goes into learning golf techniques or tennis strategy, to understand that we should provide our students interested in sports performance with similar opportunities to those we provide students seeking a career as a violinist or operatic tenor.

To be sure, academic programs in music, or theater, or dance with courses in theory and history, as well as performance, have been with us for a long time, and have well-established traditions and curriculums. Sports performance, with its tradition of amateur participation and a longstanding existence outside of the academic program as an extracurricular activity, does not have the benefit of an academic tradition.

Yet today, we know that sports performance is a rigorous, demanding, and highly professionalized career for many people. Some participate as performers; others with a performance background in college athletics move into management, coaching, and other professional roles related to sports. The skills of sports performance are nontrivial and currently have highly specialized training and study required to perform them well, and most professional athletes acquire sophisticated training and understanding of their games to ensure a successful career.

It's now time to reexamine the nature of sports performance and see if we can construct an academically viable course of study analogous to what we have done for music or dance.

How can we make the transition from sports as extracurricular activity to sports as an academic discipline? The first step is to recognize that sports as an extracurricular activity already exists in the university through elaborate systems of intramural and recreational sports, and as well through club sports that play competitions in nonprofessional contexts with other universities. But for those students seeking a career in sports performance, the requirements for a degree would need to be carefully structured and clearly specified.

The best model would follow closely on the academic requirements expected of music performance majors at many of our premier universities: Indiana, Florida State, Michigan, the University of Southern California, to take a few examples. In these programs, the students spend countless hours honing their performance skills and abilities through individual practice and have many performance requirements where they must display their skills before highly critical and expert audiences.

While an opera season at Indiana University may not draw quite the audience of an Indiana University basketball season, it surely would draw an audience that exceeds that of the IU golf or tennis team. It is not the size of the audience in any event that matters; what matters is the rigor of the preparation required of a student pursuing a performance major.

If a student wants to receive a performance degree, they not only must perform at the highest skill level (and be recruited and selected based on auditions that demonstrate the talent and commitment required to succeed), but they must also take a range of academic courses related to their profession. Music theory, composition, music history for the musician, for example. In addition, of course, they must fulfill the university's general education requirements.

In constructing our sports major, most universities already have the academic subjects that would be required through departments of kinesiology, sports management, etc. They have courses in sports history, sports law, sports finance. What they need is a structured curriculum for a student majoring in sports performance with a specialty in individual sports performance or a specialty in team sports performance.

That major would surely require participation on an intercollegiate sports team, and like those who audition and are chosen for music performance majors, they would need to have the requisite skills and abilities to compete at the highest levels. All current intercollegiate athletes already are required to participate in the general education curriculum and be on track to major. The only difference here is to have the opportunity to seek a sports performance degree.

To gain the confidence of our colleagues, we would need to ensure that the sports major achieves academic integrity. This would require an accrediting association for degrees in sports performance composed of representatives from the strong academic fields of sports management, kinesiology, business, and music performance; participation by representatives of regional accreditation agencies; and most likely engagement with the NCAA, especially using faculty athletic representatives and perhaps a designated presidential member. Periodic reviews of sports performance programs with accreditation upheld or denied, the establishment of models and norms for the organization and structure of the sports performance degree, and continuing engagement with the professional world of sports would all be part of the sports degree accreditation system.

Along with the establishment of the rigorous program for an academic degree, universities would need to create opportunities for students to move easily from college to professional performance whenever it appears appropriate. If a student in opera performance tried out for the Metropolitan Opera and was selected to become part of that organization, they would surely leave the university degree program and begin their professional career immediately, and we would celebrate that departure as a recognition of our ability to identify talent, train professionals, and launch a career, even if with an incomplete degree. Similarly, students in a sports degree program in, say golf, might well drop out and join the tour with the expectation of an early start on their professional life.  Indeed, we already do this for college baseball players.

Many, but not all students in the sports performance major would receive scholarships based on their talent and performance ability, just as students in other performance related majors receive scholarships based on auditions and assessments of talent and promise. Within this context, the athletic director, coaches, and other personnel who teach the skills, strategy, and operations of athletic programs would carry faculty status, not necessarily tenure-track depending on the nature of their work. The athletic department in collaboration with the university's academic affairs office and in compliance with accreditation expectations, would develop standards for performance instruction.

The university faculty, through its normal process, would determine the appropriate credit to be granted for particular instructional and performance activity. This, too, would draw on the experience of music performance programs.  Indeed, in those programs, the faculty are often superstars drawn from the professional world who teach performance in their fields on a temporary or guest faculty basis.

Will it take some effort to construct this sports performance major? To be sure. But the consequence of continuing to operate intercollegiate sports as an auxiliary entertainment enterprise are significantly damaging to the success of the college sports activity and detrimental to the success of students participating in these displays of talent and skill to require colleges and universities to take on this challenge.

What we need now is a courageous university president with a strong athletic program to launch this process and mobilize the support and enthusiasm of like-minded innovators.

John Lombardi is former president of Louisiana State University and the University of Florida and author of How Universities Work (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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Penn State coach's departure evidence of college sports' exploitation (essay)

Criticizing people who run football colleges for not paying their players has become easy.  The players, after all, are the ones who have enabled those football colleges to lock in place all their contracts with ESPN, CBS and Fox.  Those contracts are now worth more than $20 billion.  The industry’s economic inequity is obvious to anyone not already on the football college payroll. 

Unfortunately that inequity, though significant, is just the tip of the iceberg.  The football windfall creates a problem for higher education, and indeed for the nation, that runs deeper than higher education trustees will admit.  The abbreviated tenure of William O’Brien as coach at Penn State illustrates that problem perfectly.

Back on July 23, 2012, just six months into his tenure in State College, O’Brien needed his players. The university had just agreed to penalties for the Sandusky child sexual abuse cover-up. Those penalties included a reduction in football scholarships and a suspension from bowl game participation. 

The university could thus no longer deliver on fundamental elements of its agreement with players -- i.e., the opportunity to play with a full complement of other highly skilled players, and the chance to win a trip to a bowl game. 

Many observers expected wholesale player transfers and the demise of Penn State football. If indeed players transferred and the losses piled up, those losses might diminish the arc of O’Brien’s career.  The penalties were announced at 9 a.m.  O’Brien wasted no time.  He met with the players at 10 a.m. 

One would think he would feel compelled to be straightforward with the players about the university’s inability to deliver on its bargain with them. Penn State’s Strategic Plan, after all, claims the university holds high-minded values -- i.e., “The best education produces knowledgeable, critical, creative and ethical students,” and, “The quality of the intellectual life of the University is fundamental to success.”

Given this emphasis on critical thinking, ethics and intellectual life, one would expect O’Brien to make clear to the players that their best interests and their educations were the most important aspect of their decisions, and that he would support them whether they decided to transfer or stay.  

He later reported what he said at the meeting: 

 “…I talked to them about the bond that they've formed with this football staff…  I talked to them about adversity…. And the measure of a man is how you overcome adversity…. I talked to them about this staff and our ability to develop these guys for the National Football League…”

Nowhere in Penn State’s list of values can one find discussion of football staff bonds, NFL preparation, or a measure-of-a-man statute. 

 In the wake of the meeting, the bulk of the players did not transfer, and the team performed better than expected. Then last Friday, and after just two years on the Penn State job, O’Brien landed the higher profile, higher-paying job that fits into his conception of his career arc.  He is head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans. He no longer needs the Penn State players.

What about the Penn State players’ bond with the football staff? That no longer matters. What about preparing those players for the NFL? That no longer matters. The measure-of-a-man statute? Apparently it was just a convenient invention. 

What is now clear is that, on July 23, 2012, when O’Brien met with his players just an hour after Penn State's penalties were announced, he was not concerned with embodying Penn State values.  He was concerned with saying whatever he could think of to manipulate the players into not transferring.

The irony here is large.  In July 2012, the players could have transferred and played immediately at another school, but instead listened to O'Brien and decided to stay and play for him.  Now, by contrast, those players, plus the ones who came to Penn State to play for O’Brien, would probably be forced to sit out a year at a new school before playing, thanks to the transfer restrictions that football colleges force on players.

So as he hits the door for Houston, O’Brien’s last lesson to his players is simple: say what you need to say, and exploit whomever you need to exploit, to grab the cash.

That someone involved in higher education conducts himself in a way that broadcasts such an economically unevolved lesson is distressing yet, unfortunately, not surprising. 

All colleges that play big-time football enjoy a slice of the $20-plus billion television revenue pie. That slice remains supersized because football college trustees cannot hold themselves back from exploiting their players, who are too economically weak to stand up for a paycheck.  The lesson from all these trustees, broadcast in prime time, is thus the same as O’Brien’s:  say what you need to say, and exploit whomever you need to exploit, to grab the cash. 

This is not the lesson that will help higher education's graduates survive and rejuvenate our troubled economy.  

One wonders when higher education trustees will realize that they can run a profit-driven football league or they can educate students, but they cannot do both.

William F. Devine directs the Institute for Education in the New Economy, and is the author of Penn State’s Other Cover-up (IENE, 2013).

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Image Caption: 
Bill O'Brien and his (former) players


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