Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, October 26, 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?

* I picked UF at random; not trying to pick on anyone.


Hi there, thanks for the blog about this issue. Two things. First, a sports performance major wouldn't relieve students of basic core curriculum requirements. A major is just an emphasis. And a faculty senate would have to sign off on the content of the major, which would make it difficult to stuff it full of easy coursework. I believe a sports major could help drag athletics closer to the academic side, by giving everyone from coaches to students an incentive focus on the intellectual content of what they do. As for the pay-for-play issue, universities already pay athletes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.Paying them more is simply unfeasible -- and so what if a school makes bowl and TV money? That money actually goes to pay for athletic budgets, it doesn't go into any individual pocket. The bowl and TV money goes back to the student athletes, for the most part. We do a bad job of explaining to Division I A athletes that they are already paid handsomely in the six figure range, they probably receive half a million dollars in goods and services over four years. Most students walk away from college with a mountain of debt. Not athletes. In addition to their tuition, room, and board, they get state of the art professional training, top of the line medical care, free clothing and gear, free access to elite training and leisure facilities other students don't have access to, free travel, unlimited academic support, and and free tutoring if they want it. Finally, athletes in revenue producing sports (and some non, such as soccer or women's basketball) are provided with an unparalleled stage on which to audition for professional employment worth potentially millions. No other student enjoys such a thing.

Blogger sally jenkins -- 10/27/2011 4:29 PM  


Thank you for reading and for commenting on the post.

I am not necessarily disagreeing with your proposal, which I agree could bring athletics more into the intellectual life. But while it's true that a major is just an emphasis, that emphasis can be as rigorous (or not) as the university makes it. Not every theatre department is Yale's. And some faculty senates will be more effective at regulating this than others. So the potential remains that this will not halt some of the academic shennanighans we already see. This is not to reject the proposal, as much as to say the details must be carefully worked out.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/27/2011 10:12 PM  

I first saw this proposed on REAL SPORTS about 10 years ago .... they had a dance professor from Ohio State who wasn't sure what the difference was between a dancer studing dance and a football player studying football.

Given the proliferation of esoteric majors over the past 30 years, I don't see why this would not be a good idea. I suspect only a fraction of players would actually choose this as a major, and as Mr. Wasserman points out academic hanky-panky does not always depend on the student's major.

Anonymous Glenn -- 10/28/2011 8:07 PM  

This in an intriguing possibility and like Ms. Jenkins said, the devil would be in the details of constructing the major. I have a few ideas on things that would be included, things like sports psychology, kneithesiology, anatomy, on the science side, sociology, history of sport, etc and of course writing, so I think a sufficiently rigorous course of study could be laid out and would limit the number of credits available for simply making or being on the team. Of course, the major would have to be available to non-athletes as well, but again details.

Another interesting point where the analogy might break down is on the performance side of things. Right now, NCAA rules prohibit a student athlete from being compensated for his peformance, with the idea that his/her education is the compensation. Similarly, an athlete cannot have been paid professionally for participating in the sport in which they compete for the college. (I have heard stories of at least one former professional soccer player having a scholarship at a Div. 1 school as a place kicker for the football team).

However, there are no such restrictions on theater, dance, music or other performing arts students. All these students are free to taking paying jobs in their field without consequence to their eligibility to be in school even on a scholarship.

Related, Prof. Wasserman, have you ever heard of a case in which a student athlete in one sport--say football, was an active professional in another sport--say baseball in the minor leagues? Not a former professional as noted above, but an active professional player?

Blogger Matt Johnston -- 11/07/2011 1:00 PM  


I don't know of anyone playing one sport professionally while having eligibility in another. I know of several examples of someone playing one sport professionally, then coming back to play another in college. Chris Weinke played minor league baseball, then went back to Florida State to play football (and was a senior at, like, 24 or 25).

The performance side is part of Jenkins' article. Dance/Theatre/Music majors can both study their craft and get paid for it. So, she argues, why not athletes.

But note that the limit on paying athletes is not only limited to for their sport. Darnell Autry was the All-America running back for Northwestern's Rose Bowl team in 1995. Autry was a threatre major. The following summer, he was offered a chance to appear in a film, for which he would be paid. It created all sorts of NCAA craziness (in the end, the NCAA allowed him to do it). But this may be an example of the NCAA preventing athletes from really completing *any* major.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/08/2011 1:03 PM  

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