Phony Majors for Athletes Signal Our Surrender

To the Editor:

Establishing a major in sports for college athletes is a cop out (“End the Charade: Let Athletes Major in Sports,The Chronicle, November 26). There are no shortcuts to obtaining a good-paying job in an increasingly competitive global society. It requires real college coursework that can’t be obtained from a meaningless curriculum that is primarily geared to keeping athletes eligible. Crafting yet another phony major signals that we have given up in the important goal of providing athletes with the same quality college education that all students deserve.

Implied in this surrender position is the notion that athletes simply are not capable of higher-level learning and are inherently deficient in the cognitive skills that will allow them to succeed academically. This view is especially insulting to the many African Americans who disproportionately populate the rosters of big-time basketball and football programs. This same inane logic was once used in an earlier era of our country to deny the basic rights of African-Americans.

The lowering of our academic expectations for athletes is not just a college problem but a systemic one pervading every level of education. It begins in primary and secondary school when we go soft on young athletes and expect less from them. Adults fix things for them at every step of the way—throwing them grades, passing them in courses they shouldn’t pass, elevating them to the next grade when they should stay behind, having people take tests for them, and changing their grades and SAT scores if need be.

The message starting at the earliest ages is that we don’t really care about the education of young athletes. We care about their athletic talent when they are accomplished at throwing a football or bouncing a basketball. But do we care as much about the rigor of the education they receive? More importantly, are we willing to fight for cleaning up our educational system by calling out those who have capitulated to athletic and entertainment interests by creating phony majors, no-show courses, and dubious independent study and distance classes?

Clearly, academic values are being overwhelmed by athletics. But this can change if we recognize that the classroom is the critical choke point for ensuring that athletes get a good quality college education. Faculty friends of athletics programs often enable athletes to stay eligible but prevent them from receiving a real education like every other student. If a coach can hide an athlete in a basket-weaving class, then the coach controls the choke point. But if the faculty controls the classroom material that an athlete must master and demands that the material be legitimate, college-level material, the faculty will control the choke point in intercollegiate sports.

Institutions can respond in only one way when they know that faculty members are teaching rigorous, bona fide courses. They will have to do everything they can to bring in only those athletes who can handle legitimate college-level material.  Subscribing to ethical principles of academic rigor and expecting high levels of performance from all students, including athletes, would have a ripple effect all the way down to the lowest levels of our educational system.

If faculty members don’t step up to the plate and end the charade of phony coursework that now pervades big-time college sports, they will get what they deserve: athletes who are not educated and institutions bestowing fraudulent degrees that are not worth the paper they are written on.

Bruce B. Svare
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
Department of Psychology
State University of New York at Albany
Albany, N.Y.

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