This has been an exciting week in college sports, especially for those of us who live in Michigan. We saw one of our own universities go all the way to the championship game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
I can’t deny my own excitement. I’ve been a Michigan fan since I was a kid. That was when my dad first was watching sports on TV—it may have been football at the time—and Michigan was a powerhouse in those days. I was hooked. I became a fan of Michigan just because they got lots of attention when I first paid attention to sports.
Other than that, I have no real reason to be a Michigan fan. No one in my family ever attended college there. As for me, I have degrees from Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Michigan State University. I now teach at Grand Valley State University.
People who know me will know that I have cheered for Michigan, especially in football, over the years. So when they see me sporting a green and white MSU hat or sweatshirt, they look at me funny and ask me questions. Some who don’t know me but are partisan Michigan fans ask me why I would sport the green and white.
That’s when I remind them that college is about education, not sports. My affinity to Michigan State University is due to the years of hard but satisfactory work I put in there to earn my PhD. It doesn’t hurt that they have been doing well on the gridiron and basketball court, or that basketball coach Tom Izzo has a summer place in the area. I saw him once at a local grocery store and was tempted to loft a cantaloupe into my cart from three-point range to impress him. But seriously, college is for education. Sports is called “extra-curricular” for a reason. But our society seems to treat sports as the main thing.
The obsession with college sports is a phenomenon unique in the United States. When I taught on faculty exchange at a college in France, I noticed the school had no athletic facilities or team mascot and logo emblazoned on hats and shirts and sweatpants. A Canadian student in my doctoral program at MSU told the story of driving to Lansing from her home in Ontario to begin her studies. The customs agent at the border asked her “Are you a Spartan or a Wolverine?” She was paralyzed with fear and had no idea what he was asking. In Canada the colleges don’t have teams and mascots either. Sports are played in community leagues.
As a taxpayer and a professor concerned about our state universities, I am always pained to read about athletes for a Michigan university who leave college early for a professional league. In some respect that’s exciting. But it seems to violate the principle of a sports scholarship—to help a young person get a college education. Our universities should not be treated as a minor league sports franchise to aid the professional sports teams in identifying their next stars.
I have been concerned about this for years, even as far back as my undergraduate days. I remember when a candidate running for re-election visited the campus in Mt. Pleasant and when asked what concerned me as a student I told him to think about legislation mandating that scholarship athletes who go pro early return their scholarship funds to an account for non-athletes who demonstrate academic potential. He said he would “look into it.”
We’re already seeing that this week in the coverage of the NCAA final. There has been discussion of the games, of course. But the backstory since the final has been about whether this or that sophomore will go pro or stay in school. Sophomore? I know a lot of sophomores. They haven’t learned enough yet. Yes, the money is tempting, and the years of playing time in pro sports are short so a young person may want to jump on an opportunity to play at the top level. But for that same reason, they may want to think about getting a degree and setting themself up for a life after sports.
In my dozen years of teaching full time, I’ve had lots of athletes in class. Only one of them ever went pro. That may be because we’re Division II, but then again you need to re-watch Spike Lee’s “Hoop Dreams” to remember that the number of pro athletes nationwide is significantly smaller than the number of college athletes.
The one I knew who went pro was actually a good student. A quiet kid who sat in the back row, he wasn’t an A student, but nevertheless turned in good work and paid attention. I was most impressed when, after he was drafted by an NFL team, he contacted a colleague of mine from his new home out west and arranged to complete his final three credits in an independent study so that he could complete his degree in the off-season. There may me more stories like that. It’s too bad the media does not stress the academic achievements of college athletes more, to the satisfaction of citizens like me and as an example to younger athletes in high school.
At the end of the day there will always be sports in college in the U.S. I don’t mind that, and actually do enjoy it. But I would hope our collective perspective would change. One way to do that is to consider that if a college announced it was cancelling all its classes, people would wonder why it still exist at all. But if a college announced the elimination of sports, there might be complaints, but the central mission would not be affected.