End the Charade: Let Athletes Major in Sports

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

November 26, 2012

That collegiate sports is tainted by chicanery and a host of moral dilemmas is nothing new. Rarely does a week pass without some embarrassing deviance being uncovered and scrutinized by the ever-vigilant news media. A steady stream of scandalous disclosures depicting illicit communications and relationships among athletes, agents, and coaches, not to mention forced resignations, expulsions, and sanctions, reveals deep dysfunction in college athletics.

Countless published articles, letters to the editor, and essays have railed against those ethical violations for decades in well-intentioned efforts to provide solutions. A recent investigation by The Chronicle's Brad Wolverton revealed a host of quick, cheap, and easy academic credits available to athletes in danger of losing their eligibility to play.

What bothers me as a retired academic with decades of service­—and as an avid college-sports fan to boot—is an issue that may be integral to a good portion of such travesties.

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

Acquisition of athletic skills is what significant numbers of NCAA Division I student athletes want to pursue. And this is undeniably why they've gone to their campus of choice. Their confessions about their primary interest are readily proclaimed and by no means denied or repressed. These athletes are as honest in recognizing and divulging their aspiration as is the student who declares a goal of performing some day at the Metropolitan Opera or on the Broadway stage. Student athletes wish to be professional entertainers. This is their heart's desire.

Their family members, friends, and high-school coaches acknowledge and support that goal, so why not let them step out of the closet and declare their true aspiration­—to study football, basketball, or baseball? Why not legitimize such an academic specialty in the same manner that other professional performance careers, such as dance, voice, theater, and music, are recognized and supported? Why treat preparation for professional sports careers differently? Why not establish a well-planned, defensible, educationally sound curriculum that correlates with a career at the elite level of sports?

Why not permit the teenage freshman to declare in a straightforward manner his authentic purpose in coming to the campus? In so doing, he would be granted the opportunity to honestly pursue his wish to formally study football, basketball, or baseball, by no means a shame-worthy declaration. I've yet to meet a parent who would deny feeling pride and pleasure upon learning of a son's success in securing an NFL, NBA, or MLB contract. Our culture is solidly supportive of its professional athletes. (And while female students also pursue professional sports careers, the far higher number of young men with those aspirations makes them our topic here.)

What's more, the young man would be given the opportunity to undertake meaningful education under the auspices of distinguished professors of sports behavior in the same way that an entering student studies within a university's program of English literature, mathematics, or music. Elite collegiate coaches and their support staff are as competent in their specialty sports as are their counterparts in other campus departments (although their salaries are often embarrassingly incomparable). Higher education, for better or worse, purports to be a pathway to a vocational future. Why is this not so with regard to professional sports?

An initial two years of basic studies await most freshmen upon entering the four-year college campus, and such is expected of student athletes as well. But at this point the hypocrisy surfaces. Athletes are obliged to identify a major course of study, and many are compelled to do so disingenuously. All too many young men either completely lack interest in the mandatory and largely arbitrary and convenient choice of major or, at best, are only marginally attracted to it. Their laserlike focus is upon football, basketball, or baseball. It is here where their most powerful and meaningful motivations lie.

After those first two years are completed, a realistic curriculum for a "sports performance major" might look something like this:

  • Junior year, first semester: anatomy and physiology; educational psychology (introduction to learning theory); laboratory in heavy resistance training; football, basketball, or baseball offensive strategies (scrimmage).
  • Junior year, second semester: introduction to sports psychology; introduction to physiology of exercise; laboratory in aerobic fitness training; elements of contract law; football, basketball, or baseball laboratory (scrimmage); health education.
  • Senior year, first semester: introduction to human nutrition; public speaking; football, basketball, or baseball laboratory (offensive and defensive strategies); introduction to sports coaching.
  • Senior year, second semester: introduction to motor learning; stress and performance; elements of business law; the body in motion (kinesiology).

Such prescribed coursework would be relevant to the athlete's career objectives. And those young men who enter collegiate sports with nonprofessional aspirations (there are some, to be sure) would certainly not be required to elect the football, basketball, or baseball major. They would be entirely free to elect any major of their choosing.

During the four semesters of coursework beyond basic studies, athletes would also be participating in seasonal, on-the-field practice in their respective sports. In addition, they would continue to participate in intercollegiate competition where they would apply skills and knowledge acquired from their various educational experiences. This would be analogous to what undergraduate musicians and theater students do. They study their craft and display their acquired skill before campus audiences.

In the model I'm advocating, college athletes would truly be preparing for a well-defined, societally approved professional future. Their degree upon graduation would be a B.A. in sports performance. Their required coursework and laboratory experiences would relate to future professional needs, expectations, and demands.

Those unsuccessful candidates for professional sports positions­—those who are not signed—would deal with their thwarted dreams in the same way that rejected medical- and law-school applicants and turned-down musicians and actors would. They would keep trying or progress to alternative careers. Most significant of all, what I propose would be infinitely more honest than the charade that now prevails.

David Pargman is a professor emeritus of educational psychology at Florida State University.