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How Would You Reinvent College Sports?

What if college athletics were organized to truly benefit athletes? I credit Jeff Orleans for suggesting the frame for the article I wrote for this week’s Chronicle that is part of a compelling package on reinventing higher education.

“What would soccer look like at Nebraska or Nebraska Wesleyan or St. John’s or Philadelphia Community College if playing soccer for four years was designed to change your life in some positive way?,” Orleans, a former Ivy League commissioner who is now a senior associate at Alden & Associates, brainstormed with me one day last month. “What if the athletic activity was embraced as a wider kind of developmental activity—one that provided students with broader opportunities to participate in the life of the university?”

With that as my starting point, I turned to a handful of big thinkers to come up with a list of ideas for reimagining the game. The result–“A Student-Centered NCAA”–offers five suggestions for strengthening big-time sports.

The ideas include hiring more educator-coaches, providing players with more opportunities outside of sports, and giving athletes a greater voice in NCAA decisions. At a time when the public’s image of elite athletics programs has sometimes been reduced to a money grab, many of the suggestions focus on the inherently good things that athletics can do for students.

A number of people helped informed my story, but unfortunately I couldn’t include all of their voices. I want to offer a special thanks to Stephen G. Miller, an emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies ancient Greek athletics, and one of his former students, Sarah Stroup, an associate professor of classics at the University of Washington, for their excellent ideas about the need to reconnect athletics to its origins.

As Professor Miller sees it, the Greeks struck the right balance between athletics and academics. Plato, who was an Olympic athlete, warned against the overemphasis on either physical or intellectual development at the expense of the other in young citizens in his ideal state, Mr. Miller writes from his home in Nemea, an ancient Greek site.

Professor Stroup, who teaches a class called “War Games: Greek Athletes, Roman Gladiators, the Modern Olympics, and College Football,” sees athletics as an educational activity that is vital to students at all levels. “I am a big proponent of keeping them in the lower grades,” she says, “and I believe they are a core part of what higher education is.”

In part because big-time sports have become such a large commercial activity, she says, they are considered by many faculty members to be antagonistic to learning. “Sports is seen as anti-intellectual and something at odds with education,” she says. “That’s the problem–that divide has to be resolved.”

I’m not sure we’re going to solve that problem anytime soon, which is one reason I focused on simpler solutions. But even some of the ideas I explored in my piece, including giving athletes more academic opportunities, struck some as naïve.

“Even if universities or athletic departments made academics more of a priority, it doesn’t mean athletes would make it so,” Parker Goyer, a former Duke University tennis player, e-mailed me after reading the story. “Sometimes it’s not that athletes can’t take classes they want, but that they seek out the easiest classes on purpose, since their main focus is sports.”

She suggested a good idea for a future piece: explaining why it’s so hard to change big-time sports.

“Presumably others have thought of some of these ideas, so what is stopping them being implemented, and how can these obstacles be overcome?,” she asked. “I think that is the key question.”

Here’s one more question: With those ideas in mind, what suggestions do you have for reshaping big-time college sports?

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