Opinion Piece- A Losing Game by Christopher Yin
The experience is familiar to any Edison student. You’re walking to class on a crisp autumn morning, you turn the corner, and then you see it- splashes of color amidst a sea of white. The school has been covered by waves of posters, the walls of its buildings plastered in paper and paint. For some, this Bell Week tradition is a mark of pride, a triumphant celebration of school spirit. For me, it’s a portent of a dangerous trend in school athletics.
Football seems to be the pride of America- an atavistic, gladiatorial celebration of physicality and strength. In the 2012-2013 season, approximately 1,086,627 male high school students participated in football (and only 1,804 girls – but that’s an entirely different issue). At Edison, it is clear that football is the star- what other sports team gets an entire assembly and week devoted to it? But my problem isn’t with the sports themselves; I actually believe that school athletics are extremely valuable in encouraging an active lifestyle. After all, mens sana in corpore sano– a sound mind in a sound body. No, my problem is the extent to which these sports are lionized, and the fate that academics suffer as a consequence.
Where are the assemblies (or any form of promotion, for that matter) celebrating Science Bowl? Quiz Bowl? The American Math Competition? Biology, Chemistry, or Physics Olympiad? Students can compete in academic competition, too, but the school just doesn’t seem to care so much about supporting student involvement in these types of extra-curriculars. How many readers have even heard of these competitions before? Judging from the paltry crowds that attend Edison’s Science and Math Club meetings, I would assume very few. Students work extremely hard both inside and outside of school to prepare for these events, yet ultimately they receive little recognition. However, the danger is not in a few un-stroked egos. The danger is in how few students are exposed to the opportunities that these programs and competitions present.
People often treat school exclusively as a backdrop for a social life- and there’s nothing wrong with that. The only issue with such a perspective is that it encourages students to ignore what schools have to offer. Schools are places of learning, and in contemporary society the word “learning” is too frequently painted black with connotations of ennui, labor, and “nerdiness.” Teens don’t want to have to learn- they’d much rather experience more immediately gratifying and superficial diversions. And while there certainly exist deeply rewarding, non-educational pursuits and pastimes, the act of learning possesses its own unique attributes. What could be more empowering than understanding the laws and processes by which the body functions? By which the chemicals that compose the world interact? By which all physical motion is governed? By which human behavior is defined? Knowledge is its own reward, but unfortunately a reward that is too often forgone for the lower fruit on the tree.
That is the most important aspect of academic competition- the ability to inspire and intrigue students into wanting to learn more, into actively seeking out knowledge. When learning is placed in a competitive environment, it becomes less a “chore” and more a process of discovery aimed at achieving a specific goal. And more so than physical training for athletics, studying provides lasting benefits that transcend a single event and can reach into multiple disciplines.
So this is why I am upset when I see how athletics seem to subsume academics. There is so much more to be gained from learning than people generally accredit, but too often the values of sports are far more heavily emphasized. Even colleges are guilty of this. According to a report by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research entitled “Academic Spending Versus Athletic Spending,” between 2005 and 2010 colleges spent anywhere from three to six times as much money on athletes as on other students. For example, schools in the Football Bowl System spent an average of $13,628 per student on academics, whereas $91,936 was spent per athlete on athletics. Furthermore, spending in athletics departments increased twice as quickly as spending in academic departments (on a per-student basis). College sports have become a veritable Big Business, and big-name football schools such as Texas, Florida, and Penn State can pull in $40 to $80 million in profits per annum, with coaches receiving multimillion dollar salaries. College professor salaries, on the other hand, generally range from around $80,000 to $200,000. I hate to fall back on such a banal argument, but the dictionary definition of a college is “an institution of higher learning.” Colleges should be focusing on academics, not athletics.
That’s why I strongly believe athletic scholarships should be abolished. Students work very hard preparing for SATs, ACTs, and AP tests, on top of maintaining high grades in challenging courses and participating in a wide variety of intellectually-stimulating and/or community-oriented extra-curriculars, all in order to give themselves the best opportunities to go to a college where they can continue their education. It’s a positive feedback loop- people learn so that they can continue learning. And that’s the way it should be; academic efforts should be rewarded with academic opportunities. Yet athletic scholarships generally ignore the academic aspects of the recipients. Yes, there is a minimum requisite GPA and test score, but these bars are set fairly low- at least in comparison to the accomplishments of students committing themselves to academic pursuits- and are often very flexible, depending on how badly the school wants the athlete. When athletes are admitted and given money to attend prestigious universities, they are taking spots that other students had sought to obtain by devoting themselves to learning- the true purpose of a college.
But that’s not even the worst of it. In a recent CNN article, university learning specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill Mary Willingham reveals that early in her career she was confronted by an athlete incapable of reading or writing, who requested her help in attaining functional literacy. This, among other factors, inspired her to conduct some research, and she discovered that among 183 college athletes, 60% were reading between 4th and 8th grade levels, and 8-10% below a 3rd grade level. In my opinion, that’s not just wrong- it’s criminal. And this phenomenon is not unique to UNC-Chapel Hill. CNN conducted its own study in response to Willingham’s “whistleblowing,” taking a sample of 37 public universities (of which 21 volunteered data), and from these universities obtaining information about entrance exams, aptitude test scores, and college athletes. The results? About 7-18% of athletes participating in sports that bring revenues to their schools were found to be reading at a level equivalent to elementary school. In addition, though the cutoff for being considered college-literate is a score of 400 on the SAT critical reading or writing section, it was found that many student-athletes had scored in the 200s and 300s. On the ACT, the college-literacy cutoff score is 16, and many student athletes did not even break into double digits. This reflects a dangerous trend in college athletics in which the academic shortcomings of student-athletes are completely overlooked or even willingly concealed. Willingham confesses to helping students cheat by mendaciously signing that she was witnessing no violation of NCAA rules violations. Furthermore, UNC was revealed in the past to have allowed athletes to take fake classes, classes to which they would never have to show up, but for which they would nonetheless receive graduation credits.
The NCAA has admitted that nearly 30 out of the 5700 athletes participating in revenue sports for their colleges that were accepted in 2012 had SAT composite scores of below 700; the national average is 1000. In order to remedy these academic handicaps for college students, intensive tutoring is required. However, the extent to which tutors are actually “helping” student-athletes, and when this “help” becomes too much, is also often in question. In fact, tutors have been found to actually be writing students’ papers for them, and even directly giving them answers to their tests. Student-athletes are often considered to be “pushed through” by colleges without learning enough to truly merit a degree. For instance, Linda Bensel-Mayers, who worked for Tennessee, says that a psychologist hired by the university would diagnose athletes with learning disabilities that would enable them to be placed in special programs with eased graduation requirements.
Now there are numerous arguments as to why athletic scholarships are beneficial to universities- a prominent one is that they bring in more money. But again, the majority of this money goes back into the athletic program. Imagine how much more money would be available for academic merit scholarships, to fund educations for the students that prioritize learning, if colleges cut down on athletic expenditures. And in the end, colleges shouldn’t be about sports. There is nothing wrong with athletics, but universities are institutions of learning, and their sole purpose should be to encourage the pursuit of knowledge in all its myriad forms- not to rake in the cash by throwing academics under the bus. And change has to begin from the bottom up. High schools need to take it upon themselves to ensure that academics are receiving the emphasis that they need, that we need, else colleges will continue to be provided with abundant opportunity to propagate their deleterious parasitism against Higher Education.
So, in the end, I think it’s clear- school sports are quickly becoming a losing game for everyone.