Following Up: Should Colleges Drop Competitive Sports?

Another not-quite rerun: this week I’m following up on topics that I’ve blogged about before and recently received new attention from other media or blogs.

Original Post: A Grand Experiment: Why Sports Belong in Higher Education

Follow Up: Room for Debate: Dropping the Ball” (, April 22)

Last summer the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced severe penalties against Pennsylvania State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It made me wonder if former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s self-proclaimed “Grand Experiment” — to fuse academic and athletic excellence — could survive at “universities where powerful coaches, deep-pocketed boosters, rabid fan bases, quasi-professional ‘student-athletes,’ and misguided administrators and trustees probably see little wrong with placing football ahead of education. (Or convince themselves that it serves as a tawdry means to a more noble end.)”

Women's basketball at Bethel College, 1966-1967
Women’s basketball at Bethel College, 1966-1967 – Courtesy of the Bethel University Digital Library

Based largely on my experience of teaching at a small university in the NCAA’s Division III, which doesn’t award sports scholarships and otherwise strives to treat student-athletes as much like student-non-athletes as possible, I concluded that competitive sports makes several important contributions to higher education, “in most cases, actually filling in gaps left by academics.” I wrote about the value of sports giving college students the chance to work as a team, to learn from failure, to work hard at honing skills, and to experience the formation of hands and heart, not just head.

I thought about all of this yesterday morning, when I joined some other academic department chairs and folks from our athletic department in a breakfast conversation about integrating academics and athletics. (Bethel has an NCAA grant for this.) I generally think we do such integration pretty well already: though we run into inevitable headaches with scheduling (afternoon and Friday classes vs. travel for games), I’ve rarely had conflict with the athletics department, and the student-athletes I teach and advise reflect often on the relationship between the vocations on either side of that hyphen.

Spelman College logoAt the same time, I felt compelled to ask our athletic director and coaches (and university president, also present) if they had heard of the case of Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta that decided this year to eliminate its intercollegiate athletic program at the end of 2012-2013 and reinvest the million dollars it cost into a campus program to enhance fitness and wellness for all of the school’s 2000+ students. Said Spelman president Beverly Daniel Tatum in an interview with Inside Higher Ed last fall:

We say we are preparing them for their future lives, but when we think about our involvement in intercollegiate athletics or our activities in our physical education classes, those are not necessarily the things they’re going to do after graduation…. We want them to live long and healthy lives so they can get the return on that investment they’ve made in higher education…. We really see this as a life-saving activity that we are engaging in.

Spelman is an unusual case, to be sure: one of only two schools to withdraw from the NCAA in the last decade (the other: New York City College of Technology). And only 4% of Spelman’s students competed in athletic programs like its conference championship-winning cross-country team, while at Bethel the figure is closer to 17%, and it’s more like 25% across all of Division III (according to the presentation we heard yesterday). But Spelman’s “wellness revolution” has drawn national attention: last month the New York Times not only ran an article on Spelman in the wake of Tatum’s decision (originally unpopular, but now endorsed even by the athletic director: “It truly makes sense”), but its website devoted one of its “Room for Debate” forums to asking the question, “Should colleges get rid of competitive sports?

One “no” vote came from James Davis, a former college president (from a D3 school) who rejected scholarship sports as a “farm club for professional athletics” but still found athletics to be a “vital part of a student’s education at small colleges when properly developed and managed as a part of the overall college mission.” (And when costs are controlled, the major concern of panelist Donna Desrochers, who focused on Division I, where the expense of educating student-athletes can be three to six times that for other students.) He also stressed the importance of athletics in fostering “school spirit”; likewise, our athletic director pointed to the importance of sports like football in the “campus ethos” at Bethel

Beverly Daniel Tatum
Beverly Daniel Tatum – Spelman College

I think that’s correct, but as a historian who constantly emphasizes to students that the way things are is not the same as the way they’ve been — or might be in the future — it’s also conceivable to imagine, over time, a Bethel existing outside the NCAA with a changed, but still vital ethos. And much as I tend to agree with Davis about the unique value that competitive athletics (not sure if rec sports can do this as well) adds to what we call “whole person education,” I also think Tatum has a legitimate point — made in her contribution to the NYT roundtable — that the benefits of athletics shouldn’t be so focused on a small share of the students who happen to have a certain degree of giftedness in and commitment to a select set of sports, while the “fitness needs of more than 2,000 students were going unmet.”

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