Student Athletics as a Moral Endeavor
I remain an idealist about the reality of being a student athlete, a chastened idealist, but still committed to the ideal. The ideal of being a student athlete should have moral power and place demands on us. I believe the moral standing grows from three promises that the athlete and the university make to each other. I will discuss them in detail and their implications for both the university and the student athlete.
These promises make the education of a student athlete a moral endeavor that flows from the promises. Here are the three promises that anchor student athlete into the moral life of the university and being a student.
- The university promises the student athlete to provide the support and resources to grow to his or her highest potential as a student of academics and athletics.
- The student promises to the university to bring his or her highest commitment, talent and energy to develop their potential as a student both academically and athletically.
- The student promises to him or herself and often their God that she or he will be true to their talent and future and use the time to mature into the best person they can become.
These promises link being a student with both academics and athletics. Students are learners, and they learn and master both academic and athletic domains.
My friend Ed Taylor the Vice Provost & Dean of Academic Affairs at University of Washington insists that education is a moral endeavor. Its morality arises from the mutual commitment by student and teacher to help the student grow into his or her potential. This involves not just mastering technical skills to survive and achieve in a job or sport. The education should develop personal attributes to help a person succeed in life. The student can grow into a person of character, belief and commitment.
I believe Ed is correct, and that the moral nature of education means that the above promises should hold true for any “student” at an educational institution. The three promises reinforce two issues that apply to education and to intercollegiate sports.
§ First, accepting a student means that the college has assessed that the accepted student can succeed.
§ Second, the institution will provide the resources and support for any accepted student to succeed.
In American higher education as many of one third of students may come in with deficits in writing or math skills. Modern universities provide numerous introductory or remedial writing and math classes to bridge the student’s needs in this area. Universities also provide counseling, health services and guidance to support career and course planning.
The other side of this moral equation addresses the responsibility of the student. Professors and colleges cannot force a student to learn. A college should provide support, teaching, knowledge and opportunity. In the end, however, the student must study for class, take advantage of counseling resources, or visit with the professor or TA. The individual student must read the books, take the time to memorize or think hard about the assignments—students make the decision to forgo other opportunities whether drinking, partying or working to master knowledge and skills offered by the university.
Many students work today to go to college and balance working 20-30 hours a week with learning in classroom. Numerous students find their true passions in extra-curricular activities, service learning or internships where they invest time energy to flourish. At its best class teaching and experiential learning reinforce each other.
College education will not stick and achievement will not occur without effort and attention by the individual student.
The second promise of the student locks this in. Students promise to the institution to bring their attention and effort to work, grow and learn. Any teacher will tell you the worst experience in teaching happens when a teacher faces a classroom where no one wants to be there and no one cares about learning what the class offers.
The second promise implies the success of a student depends upon the inner dialogue students have with themselves about what they desire to achieve, whom they aspire to become and what their conscience and God ask of them.
Now let’s go back to the moral world of the student athlete. I am well aware that the cynics and college-educated ex-student athlete TV commentators make careers out of bashing the NCAA. Usually they focus exclusively upon the less than .o5 percent of the 450,000 student athletes who might move on to 3.6 year average careers in professional sports. Leaving these ultra elite revenue sport students aside for this discussion, we need to remember that being a student athlete, period, is hard. All student athletes tread a hard road.
Student athletes gain access to colleges, often ones they might not get into on academic or experience merit, by virtue of their athletic skill. They are expected as a condition of admission to compete on behalf of a university and contribute to the university’s team athletic success. This involves at least 25-40 hours a week devoted to practice, film watching, conditioning, travel, medical work and actual competition.
The amount of work spent on athletic achievement goes up as the division rises. This is partially due to elite status but also connected to the fact that Division 1 & 2 offer scholarships, and student athletes feel a strong moral obligation to devote that time. It also reflects the reality that most student athletes are pursuing a passion. They are competing in activities they love and have mastered. The athletes want to excel and play and for 99.5%, college is the last chance they will have to play.
The experience of achieving in an activity a person is committed to and excels at is rare and exceptional for any human beings. Harvey Perlman the Chancellor of Nebraska-Lincoln often muses that he wishes more students had the chance to be as passionate about their college activities as student athletes.
Being a student of academics and athletics at the same time takes immense effort, discipline and time management by student athletes. Student athletes know this, and all the graduation surveys reflect learning time management and self-discipline as two of the major attributes and accomplishments of student athletes. It is exhausting but these attributes undergird the student athlete’s promise:
1) these attributes grow from the dedication to study and learn their craft as athletes and contribute to their university and team and individual desire to achieve.
2) this self-discipline and time management enables them to study and learn in class, study homework and hand in assignments and take exams despite the time they devote to athletics.
This life and dedication of time and attention reveals the strength and importance of the two promises that student athletes make to their team/school but also to themselves and their God.
Part II will look more closely at the first promise, the one the college makes to the student athlete.
The first promise singles out the college’s commitment to the student. This promise takes on special urgency because often the student may only be 16 to 18 when they make the commitment. When the student athlete is the first person in their family to go to college, the college’s promise, made by the coach, to get them an education and not just a chance to play sports or become a professional athlete takes on a unique and powerful moral imperative.
The university’s obligation is doubly important because if the student athlete does not leave with a credible degree, while they will have had a marvelous four years doing what they love, but at the age of 22, their athletic career will be over and their adult life will begin. The college promises more than learning athletics, it promises learning what skills the college can offer to prepare for adult life.
If the university does not meet this promise, then the university simply exploits the passion and promise of the student athletes. In this the commentators are correct, the university must provide strong academic support for the student athletes to succeed on this onerous path.
We need to remember that colleges make these promises to any student they accept. In the case of student athletes the college requires them to compete as a condition of acceptance. The college can provide this support through regular college programs or athletic specific programs, but the school has this obligation. The college’s promise requires the university to provide several critical dimensions of support.
1) Coaching and personnel for training and medical care to support athletic development and achievement.
2) Academic and personal support to learn in the academic context and develop a personal identity beyond being an athlete.
3) College support requires multiple levels of resources:
1) Five years of support to graduate plus strong summer school support. Huge numbers of regular college students now take 5-6 years to graduate. The sheer time and energy demands on college athletes means the student athletes need the extra time and summer support to have a good chance to graduate.
2) Personnel to work with the student to ensure that he or she understands the complicated NCAA graduation progress requirements. This advice moves the student on a trajectory towards graduation but also keeps them eligible. To be honest in the early years of college, many student athletes identify primarily as athletes and getting them to study will be driven as much by their desire to stay eligible as to develop as an academic student.
3) Help for students to navigate the tensions of taking exams and getting assignments in and working with professors when athletes must travel as part of their scholarship obligations. More than a few professors resent athletic travel interference with classroom academics, and student athletes need academic support needs to bridge the tensions.
4) Tutoring and study tables will help students stay up with academics while spending 30-40 hours a week on athletics. Learning academically and athletically can be harsh and hard. The reality is most student athletes, even the best students, struggle during the first two years of college trying to balance this. Honestly very few freshmen, period, are truly ready for the academic demands of college life. This support bridges the critical first two years.
5) This academic support is absolutely necessary when dealing with the athletes recruited from disadvantages backgrounds. Often student athletes from wretched urban or rural school systems need tutorial support and academic incentives to recover and stay on track as they struggle to catch up to the skills levels needed to be a self sustaining college student. Without this compensatory support at the beginning, disadvantaged student athletes will fail.
Many colleges fail student athletes at this academic nexus. College athletics becomes exploitation if schools do not support academic learning along with the athletic learning. Especially at the second level of division 1 and division 2, athletes do not get the academic support they need during the first two years. The NCAA and conferences are fighting to and must continue to push and incentivize colleges to provide academic support to address the reality of student life.
You see this failure manifest when the NCAA votes down regulations that would provide more academic and financial support for student athletes. The class based votes of the NCAA where mid-majors and lower level D1 schools vote against paying true cost of attendance or against academic reforms to avoid the costs demonstrates this moral failure.
Many NCAA officials believe that if schools are going to enjoy the benefits of intercollegiate athletics and exposure, especially those that involve recruiting underserved minority students, schools have the moral obligation to invest in the academic support required by the promise to provide the resource support for persons to flourish as students and athletes.
The pressure on this issue must never falter. Schools will funnel new resources into salaries and facilities, but it must also go to academic support. Conferences should be pushing this as a condition of membership. One of the real benefits of the new penalties for low graduation rates is that it forces schools to either recruit better prepared students or invest in better academic support for students.
In the end, however, the reality of the success or failure of the enterprise rests with the young man or woman who make the promise and face their possibilities as students of athletics, academics and life.