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Thursday, October 27, 2011

B.A., Sports Performance, University of Florida

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post proposes a very different reform for college sports: Allow athletes to major in "Performance of Sport," building around participation on the team a (hopefully) rigorous curriculum looking at history, law, ethics, policy, and business of sports. Jenkins discusses her proposal on a Slate podcast. Sports, she argues, should be like drama or music or dance or art, all of which are accepted as intellectually and academically worthy enough to be integrated into the life of the school. All are pre-professional majors--athletes (at least stars in top-level football and men's basketball programs) are in college to prepare to be professional athletes, just as theatre majors are in college to prepare to be actors.  The similarity extends further in that, like athletes, theatre or music students bring unique extra-academic talents to the mix and spend significant time outside the classroom practicing and honing those skills. A further similarity is that all come to a school less for the school than for the person at the school (a coach or a particular cello teacher) and may be tempted to change schools if that person leaves.

This is an interesting idea. Arguably, major basketball and football schools already do a poor-man's version of this with majors such as "Leisure Studies," although these do not go the full step of awarding academic credit for playing on the team. But is Jenkins right that this would eliminate much of the corruption in college sports? Under her model, "the worth of an athletic scholarship would suddenly be clearer. We could stop worrying about “exploiting” athletes and whether to pay them. Yale drama undergraduates don’t get a cut of the box office — their recompense is first-rate training for the stage. They aren’t exploited. They’re privileged." Jenkins makes a slightly different point that I also agree with: We actually treat student-athletes worse than regular students (including students in performance majors) by not allowing them to work, to perform professionally away from school, make money off their images, etc.

The devil is in the details, as Jenkins recognizes in the Slate conversation. First, I am not sure this takes away the pressure to share the money with athletes (at least football and men's basketball), which still make money and produce fame and recognition for the university. That we are forthright that the students are majoring in being athletes does not change the fact that they are making money for the school and may want a piece of it. And the analogy to theatre or music breaks down because those departments are not connected to billion-dollar television contracts. Are players going to be any happier that they are receiving scholarships but no salary to be football players than that they are receiving scholarships but no salary to be Leisure Studies majors?

The big risk is that some universities would not take this major seriously, that it would be a series of gut courses that will allow student-athletes to slip by without having to do any real work. This somewhat ties into the fact  that many athletes are less prepared for college than their classmates and that schools typically give more admissions leeway for athletes than for cello players. So how easy would it be for some schools to create a major to further protect (and keep eligible) its more academically marginal players.  On the other hand, all departments have such courses that all students in all majors take advantage of (at Northwestern, there was a basic statistics course in the Math Department nicknamed "Math for Medill," for all the journalism majors using it to satisfy a requirement). And athletics is not the only area or reason for which such admissions benefits are provided.

Jenkins said she has received many responses from university professors who like the idea. It will be interesting to see if the idea catches on. Thoughts?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 27, 2011 at 09:15 AM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Great article! It seems it's time college athletes should be paid. The NCAA has held down this racket for a long time. If they don't change, more than $2,000 per year, they're going to fall. The debate over at TC Huddle got me thinking about this. I wondered what other people were saying and found your opinion.

Thanks for the post! Enjoyed it. Here's the article that led me here if you're curious: http://www.tchuddle.com/2011/07/pay-the-kid-the-earned-dollars-of-college-athletes/

Posted by: Steph | Nov 4, 2011 12:16:35 AM


Unless you're hewing to the extreme libertarian line that all restrictions on professional choices are verboten, your "players can't go pro straight from high school" argument fails.

Moreover, players aren't forced to go to college; they can play professionally outside the U.S. There is a huge market for young, talented basketball players in Europe and other countries. Football is tougher, but (I think) individuals can play in the CFL straight out of high school. They might also have opportunities to play arena football and semi-professional football leagues that exist in the U.S.

The relevant criterion here is "compared to what," not "assume cosmic justice." Compared to their realistic alternatives, most college football and basketball players do quite well. The problem with players from poor backgrounds is that they're poor, not that they don't get enough quid pro quo for participating in college athletics. Perhaps more redistribution is warranted, but this has nothing to do with college athletics.

Posted by: GU | Oct 28, 2011 7:52:04 PM

GU, sure there are some non-monetary benefits. But those are basically all true for professional athletes as well. The problem is that the college football player or basketball player isn't given a choice, either with respect to how much they'll be compensated by the college, or whether they even attend college in the first place.

In any other market, the NCAA would be per se guilty of price fixing. Just because college athletes receive accompanying non-monetary benefits, doesn't mean that they aren't being exploited, given the immense profits they are generating for their schools.

Meanwhile, because HS basketball and football players are unable to immediately become professionals under the NFL and NBA restrictions, that makes the exploitation label more appropriate in my view. These kids are forced to go to school whether they have any desire to or not, and are not fully compensated for the revenue they generate, all while risking serious, career-threatening injuries. If the NFL and NBA followed MLB's model, where athletes can either become professionals straight out of HS, or else must stay in college for a few years, then I would agree that exploitation is an inapt label. In that case, the players would be free to decide which path was best for them. But under the currently coercive system, the players are being exploited, regardless of any non-monetary benefits they may receive.

Posted by: Anonity | Oct 28, 2011 9:51:31 AM

College athletes, especially football and basketball players at the major schools, receive a great many non-pecuniary benefits that should nonetheless be taken into account before we bandy about words like "exploit."

First, many are admitted to colleges that, without their athletic prowess, would not be open to them. Simply graduating from the flagship university in the state will open many doors that would otherwise be closed.

Second, these guys have access to lots of sex with attractive mates (viz., their status as football/basketball player increases their sexual opportunities relative to the non-athletes). This is a huge benefit that many seem to ignore, but believe me, the athletes don't ignore it.

Third, if one achieves a modicum of success, they will often have "local legend" status that leads to free meals and drinks, favors from fans, and other opportunities (both during college and later in life).

Fourth, for those students from poor neighborhoods and families, it is a chance to get away from poverty and acclimate to middle-class norms, which could improve employment options and life outcomes later down the road even if the athlete never graduates from college.

Fifth, especially for middle-class and/or intelligent student-athletes, you have a line on your resume that pronounces you as "awesome" to 95% of the male managers, partners, etc. that might hire you (sure, many professors don't care about sports, but most normal folks do, and female interest in sports is on the rise as well).

Sixth, the experience of playing a major sport at a good school is one that is likely to be cherished for a lifetime. Ex-college athletes can relive their glory days via memory or videotape, and again, this reminiscing will often impress people (a benefit to the ex-athlete).

I could keep listing all the intangible benefits of being a jock at a major sports school, but you get the picture. Maybe a free college education plus all these benefits is not enough in exchange for playing a sport for which you have great talent, but "exploitation" or other loaded words do not accurately describe the relationship. (Not to mention it's no secret to incoming players that they won't get a cut of the revenue they bring in) No one is forced to participate in collegiate sports, and if they don't like it ex post they can always quit.

Posted by: GU | Oct 27, 2011 11:00:50 PM

Howard: The issue isn't whether students will continue to care about games; maybe they will and maybe they won't. The real question is whether millions of television viewers -- who don't give a fig for minor league baseball or hockey -- will continue to be interested in minor league football and basketball, once the pretention of collegiate-ness is completely stripped away. Of course, any change would occur over time . . .

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Oct 27, 2011 4:52:52 PM

Brad: A valid concern. But Jenkins's point/hope is that this would become a rigorous major, so it would not be without market value (at least once word of these majors got around). In any event, lots of people major in things with no market value (I have several friends who were theatre majors whose careers have nothing to do with theatre).

Steve: I am not sure I agree, since most students regard the athletes as quasi-professional anyway. As long as the connection to the university remains and as long as tv remains, popularity will continue, regardless of the terms under which these athletes play.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 27, 2011 12:54:47 PM

How long would college sports remain popular once the players were acknowledged as minor-league professionals? Wouldn't college football and basketball eventually sink to the level of minor league baseball and hockey, with a relatively small fan base that is mostly attracted by cheap tickets? In other words, college sports are popular prescisely because of their connections to colleges, which would be attenuated (and eventually broken) by overt professionalism.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Oct 27, 2011 11:34:55 AM

Although it wouldn't be as good as full profit participation, allowing collegiate athletes to make paid endorsements, control use of their image in advertising, etc. would go a long way towards reducing the grossly exploitative nature of the status quo in men's basketball and football. That's something of a secondary point for Jenkins though.

With respect to her main point re: majoring in sports qua sports, I'd be concerned that athletes in non-revenue sports or lesser players in revenue sports would be pressured to major in a field for which there would be little to no market value. If someone is destined to play in the NBA it doesn't matter what his diploma says (or even if he has one), but for someone who plays lacrosse he needs to find something else to do after he graduates, and a degree in lacrosse isn't going to open a lot of doors.

Posted by: Brad | Oct 27, 2011 9:46:46 AM

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