Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

A New (Old) Philosophy of Intercollegiate Athletics

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

A New (Old) Philosophy of Intercollegiate Athletics

Article excerpt

I accept with honor Phi Kappa Phi's invitation to contribute my perspective on college athletics to its Forum. Since leading a movement to restructure Vanderbilt University's athletics program in 2003 by eliminating the position of Athletics Director and by absorbing our entire Athletics department into our Division of Student Life, I have been viewed by some as a reformer in intercollegiate athletics. Phi Kappa Phi Forum has invited me to contribute according to that role.

As many people know, despite our best intentions - or, more accurately, when we refuse to put into practice our best intentions - universities are not always ideal citizens.

Over the past few years, Vanderbilt and other universities and colleges have increased our emphasis on the ways that scholarship can be employed as service and how the gifts of the university can be shared with and enhanced by our greater community. Service learning is an accepted and familiar part of college curricula, and an emphasis on active citizenship has changed the prevalent mood on many a campus from one of profit to one of participation. But all of the self-styling of engaged activity and moral consciousness that colleges and universities may present also serves to raise the bar for us. How well we comport ourselves directly affects our abilities to follow through with our goals of engagement and service, for who wants a gift from a source that is tainted and compromised? Social responsibility must be required of a university inside as well as outside its boundaries. The amount of respect with which we treat those most directly affected by our policies - in this case, our students who happen also to be athletes - announces to the rest of the world the truth of our moral posture.


That college athletes are enrolled in classes that do little to challenge them - "Basket weaving 101" is a joke almost too tired to mention and certainly too tired to tell - is a common popular conception. The sorrow of this conception is that the target is wrong: student athletes should not be the punchline of a joke. Rather, the problem is a system that seeks to exploit their talents while giving them little in return for their efforts. When the emphasis is shifted, suddenly the joke does not seem so funny.

A system may be too impersonal to tell effective jokes about, but it is not immune to having reforms thrust upon it. In the past year, we have made some laudable efforts, including:

* The Coalition for Intercollegiate Athletics that was held at Vanderbilt in January 2005;

* Edward Malloy's widely reported insights at Sports Business Journal's December 2004 forum on the business of intercollegiate athletics;

* Myles Brand's more aggressive stance at the NCAA.

An assertive and fearless push by reformers who are either brave or foolish, depending upon your interpretation, has rendered the NCAA more flexible and more adaptable to concerns of ethics and academics.

The small experiment we began at Vanderbilt seems to be taking hold.

Universities and colleges simply can no longer avoid a serious and systematic examination of sports policy because interwoven with the constant litany of scandals and misdeeds are very real and difficult questions of education as a whole, of law and business, of sociology and politics. These questions bump up against areas of sensitivity such as social class, race, gender, and economics. They are not all comfortable questions, but they have to be answered. They are questions provoked by a changing world, and by a world which, despite its habits, may need to steer more mindfully the direction of its change.

We need to look in an ordered way at the influence that intercollegiate athletics ultimately has on the educational enterprise:

* how perceptions of and public policies toward colleges and universities are affected by athletics;

* how institutions quantify the costs of athletics versus their benefits;

* what is the appropriate role of external entities in the oversight and regulation of our institutional programs;

* how involved faculty should be in athletics policy;

* and what is the appropriate relationship between college and professional athletics. …

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