Should Universities Let College Athletes Major In Sports?

Amid the fog of scandal and shame at some of our biggest institutions, the role academics play in the big business of college athletics has come under more scrutiny. With players taking made up courses in made up schools, and with schools fudging grades to keep players eligible, the NCAA has taken steps in recent years to bolster academic standards. But it continues to ignore the most important fact that is staring top-level college sports in the face: many of the athletes are in school because the model we have created makes going to college the most logical step toward becoming a professional athlete. Many “student-athletes” are students simply because they are athletes, and the education they truly care about is the one that occurs on the field, not the one that happens off of it.

Whenever athletes make that clear, the NCAA and its proponents stir it up as a major controversy. But former professor David Pargman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, thinks we should cater to athletes who want to become professionals by making an athletics major available to college players. That’s not a new idea, but few have gotten as specific as Pargman, who argues that if theater and music students who face similarly long odds of a professional career have their own majors, perhaps athletes should too:

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

Acquisition of athletic skills is what significant numbers of NCAA Division I student athletes want to pursue. And this is undeniably why they’ve gone to their campus of choice. Their confessions about their primary interest are readily proclaimed and by no means denied or repressed. These athletes are as honest in recognizing and divulging their aspiration as is the student who declares a goal of performing some day at the Metropolitan Opera or on the Broadway stage. Student athletes wish to be professional entertainers. This is their heart’s desire.

In Pargman’s view, an athletics major would consist of the standard two years of general studies that most undergraduates take as freshmen and sophomores. After that, it would get more specific to their field, as they would take classes like anatomy and physiology, exercise science, contract and business law, and public speaking. Physical education, physical therapy, and kinesiology majors are still common at our colleges and universities, and while those are available options for college athletes, Pargman’s proposal improves on them by requiring skills like public speaking, business courses, and contract law that are especially important for soon-to-be professionals. By mixing in sport-specific labs (or by giving credit for on-field practice and game time), such programs would also acknowledge that the actual playing of the sports is in itself a part of the student’s job training experience. Many athletes already major in physical education or kinesiology, but giving them the option to fine-tune their coursework would make for an even stronger academic experience while theoretically increasing their interest level and therefore the value of the education they ultimately receive.

Critics of an athletics major would be quick to point out how few of our college athletes go on to professional careers. But Pargman compares his hypothetical athletics major to concentrations in theater, music, and art. Few of our theater majors end up on Broadway, few of our art majors have paintings in the Met, and hardly any music majors end up in the Boston Pops. But they still take courses specific to their craft, and proponents of such programs (myself included) are quick to defend their social and academic value. Given that sports and physical education have social and academic value as well, why should they be treated as less worthy of academic study than theater, art, and music — or religion, philosophy, anthropology, or any other social science majors that often have little practicality for a student’s long-term career prospects?

As for the athletes who “go pro in something other than sports,” the athletics major doesn’t have to be a waste. As Pargman argues, students who fall short of professional athletics will simply deal with their college choice the same way other students who chose specific majors do: by applying the skills they have learned in another career path of their choosing. For those who don’t make it, many of the course Pargman proposed would have practical application in fields like education, behavioral sciences, or communications. Such majors could even have further concentrations (like many broad arts and sciences majors do) to push athletes closer to their interests, making it easy for an athletics major to transition his or her skills to physical education, coaching, contractual law, or business and marketing should they not fulfill their goal of becoming a professional athlete.

College education, in the end, is an experiment for all students, and degree programs aren’t necessarily job training programs. The NCAA has focused its academic reforms on increasing standards for incoming athletes and increasing oversight on athletes once they get on campus, but none of that addresses the purpose or function of academics in big-time college sports, or how to make the academic side work in tandem with the athletic side. Letting athletes pursue their interests the way we let other incoming students (particularly those focused on a craft) pursue theirs could address the tension that currently exists between the student and the athlete. Pargman’s proposal may not be perfect, but given the obvious failures of the NCAA’s recent attempts to make academics a serious part of the college athletic experience, it is at least worth considering.