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Monday, November 26, 2012
Majoring in college sports

Last year, I wrote about a proposal by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post to allow college athletes to major in their sport, building a (hopefully) rigorous curriculum around participation on the team. Now here is David Pargman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology (and a self-described sports fan) making a similar proposal in Monday's Chronicle of Higher Education (H/T: Deadspin). Like Jenkins, Pargman uses performing arts majors as the analogue. He goes one step further and lays out what the last two years of the program would look like, with the first two years spent in basic studies. The advantage of this, Pargman argues, is honesty--students, coaches, family members, and universities all can openly acknowledge exactly why these young men and women (mostly men) are on campus.

As I wrote last time, this is an interesting idea with some potential, but the devil is in the details. Ultimately, my deepest question is whether this solution addresses the real problem facing college athletics. Pargman argues that not forcing student-athletes to pick a major in which they are not interested--when they really want to study their sport and become a professional athlete--is "integral" to a good portion of the other travesties that surround college sports. But is forcing a football player to major in, say, "Leisure Studies" really integral to all the other problems? Or are the real problems that 1) many of these people have no interest in being in college or studying at all, regardless of what classes they can take or what they can declare as a major, and 2) universities and coaches are making boatloads of money because of the skills of these students and the students are not seeing a dime. Honesty in their major does not change that.

Which is not to reject the proposal out of hand. It is just to emphasize that the problems inherent in college sport go much deeper than this.


The problem I see with this ideal, although I support it, is that it pigeonholes an athlete to believing a professional opportunity exists in their sport.

Why should a women's volleyball player at Belmont major in sports when no likely professional opportunity exists? A male high-jumper at Missouri?

It also hampers the NCAA's intentions for the APR graduation stipulations and penalties. I guess it could be argued that instead of hidden shoehorning into majors like Comm, African American Studies or Multidisciplinary Studies, the universities are at least letting the student focus on their intention.

How hard will it be to get a non-sports job as a sports major? That's the primary issue. Does this method eschew the intent of higher education (and consequentially the NCAA)? I'd say yes, which means the systematic problem would still be as prevalent and debilitating.

Anonymous Eric Arnold -- 11/27/2012 4:33 PM  

Interesting points. My guess is that Pargman and Jenkins really are thinking about football, men's basketball, and maybe baseball players. Although lots of people major in theatre or music even though they probably will not become professional actors or musicians, so why shouldn't that women's basketball player have the same opportunity. So long as the "major" is academically rigorous enough, she can do something with it down the road (that gets at your question of getting a non-sports job with this major).

As for shoehorning: One concern I have is that teams will pressure players into majoring in the sport. This already exists. If players are able to earn academic credit for team activities (as opposed to having to sit in a classroom across campus), that pressure might increase.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/28/2012 12:36 AM  

In response to Mr. Arnold’s first point, I do not believe athletes who major in their sport will be disadvantaged by believing they can go pro. Many, many college degrees may not result in the career the student desired (art, philosophy, religious studies, etc.). Even if an athlete fails to go pro, majoring in a specific sport or in sports studies in general would at least give the athlete a opportunity to study a topic he or she is interested in (rather than topics the athlete may have no desire to learn) and receive a degree that may be used in the future. A sports degree may prove valuable to the athlete’s secondary career if that career has any foundation in sports (athletic trainer, coach, agent). So I would not discount a sports degree so fast considering the other degree options. True, business or computer science may be the more advisable options for an athlete who will not go pro, but a sports degree may be on par (for the athlete) with a degree in social science, political science, or drama- so let athletes study their field (we may learn it is worthy of such a pursuit). – T. Hoxie

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/28/2012 9:43 PM  

I very much support this idea of a "sports" major for student-athletes, assuming the curriculum is one rigorous enough for the growth and development we ultimately want from our college students. I envision this curriculum being practical for athletes, including all the core classes, then classes that prepare student-athletes for financial management, contract preparation, and communication skills. This idea is attractive on several fronts, especially for sending athletes into a sports arena better able to fight for their rights and contract terms.

I push back on the idea that someone with this type of major would be unable to secure non-sports job. And my argument can be simply put by using myself as an example. Upon college graduation, I earned a degree in English and Communication. My first job post graduation was working in retirement and finance. With the recession and decrease of jobs, there are millions of stories like mine.

Student-athletes and their teams struggle with keeping grades and interest in classes they are often steered toward because it's simply not something they want to do. Giving them an option of a "sports" major would give them an option to learn practical skills in areas in which they are actually interested.

Anonymous B.Furr -- 11/30/2012 12:58 PM  

I think if an athlete would like to "major" in their sport (or another sport that they may have an interest in but do not play) they should be allowed to pursue that interest. Would a class in "basketball defenses" really be all that different than an PE class in rhythms, outdoor activities, or swimming? Also, learning a sport may lead to other professional opportunities -- like coaching.

However, I also worry that athletes will be pushed toward these majors when they would really like to study a different subject.

Anonymous Holley H. -- 11/30/2012 11:17 PM  

This was suggested many years ago on a Real Sports segment, it was proposed by a dance professor at Ohio State. How long ago? Andy Katzenmoyer was still playing for OSU, so I'm not sure why this is being treated as some groundbreaking proposal.

Anonymous Glenn -- 12/01/2012 11:38 PM  

This is a great idea. Administrators would not have to start from scratch to implement this plan. Most universities already have sports management as a major. If we were to tailor that towards performance in a specific sport, provide intense networking while participating in that sport, and infuse finance and business management courses in conjunction with a specific sport this would work perfectly for athletes.

Many athletes, Olympic sports included, leave school with aspirations to coach sports with now knowledge of how to enter their coaching field. P.E. degrees will not do it.

Offering a comprehensive major in a specific sport could ultimately standardize the playing field for potential coaches, increase the number of qualified minority candidates, and does not require re-inventing the wheel. Consolidate sport specific classes with some business classes, leadership, etc...

Anonymous S. Neal -- 12/03/2012 10:14 AM  

I think there is potential in this idea. However, I think the idea needs to be broadened beyond being a professional athlete because of the very low percentage of athletes that actually make it.
Their study should focus on the many different avenues from which they can pursue a career in their sport. Teach them how to teach their sport and its attributes. This way if it does not work out professionally for them they have to opportunity to still find a career in the sport they love. For example, as a coach, athletic trainer, or in the offices of athletic departments and front offices.


Anonymous Matt Stapleton -- 12/06/2012 6:47 PM  

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