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Questioning the "Student" Portion of the Student-Athlete Designation

As we sit here waiting to hear some names revealed of just who will and won’t ride the bus to Atlanta this weekend for UNC, I finally took a few moments to read the Bomani Jones article on ESPN that was making the rounds earlier this week, where he basically takes the system to task for its treatment of academics among athletes:

If you’re looking beneath the surface for the problem in Chapel Hill, you might find it in the amazing coincidence that so many top-notch athletes are so interested in how humans relay messages. Or maybe it’s just that “communications” fits the bill for what a former UNC football player told me about the majors of choice there: Athletes are interested in a major that works around their busy schedules, requires little math, primarily assigns short papers and uses subjective grading in most of its courses.

That common thread among so many of UNC’s best players reflects a problem particular to athletics. It isn’t limited to Chapel Hill; nor is it merely an indication of how education has been devalued across the board. Only in athletics are students asked to manage their schoolwork around their real jobs. It’s the only department on campus where limiting the scope of one’s educational possibilities is passed off as a favor. It essentially designates a teenager to be academically irredeemable.

As long as education is used as currency for athletes’ bodies and ungodly amounts of their time, they must at least learn something. Otherwise, they’re being “paid” with rubber checks.

They receive clothes, lodging and the chance to work, a bushel of goods that makes comparisons between college sports and human trafficking unavoidable. Without an enriching educational environment, the current system of college athletics is worse than unfair. It’s inhumane.

Make sure you click through and read the entire thing - Jones certainly makes some salient points, but I also wanted to add just a few thoughts.

I want to certainly start out by mentioning that I think he paints with quite a broad brush - there’s a lot of referring to “athletes” and “athletic departments” here which I feel like is a thinly-veiled attempt to hide the fact that for the most part we are talking about revenue sports. During my college experience, both covering and being friends with a lot of athletes, athletes among the non-revenue or Olympic sports were indeed held to  a higher academic standard - which isn’t to say I’m condoning Jones’ article. If anything, that makes his indictment even more valid in my mind.

The idea that we should challenge our student-athletes in the classroom as much as we do on the field is certainly a noble one, but clearly one that’s easier said than done. I agree with Jones’ overall thesis that education in the revenue programs is probably more focused more on keeping athletes eligible than really investing in their future intellectually, but it’s so much easier to point that fact out than examine all the factors that lead up to that even happening. Maybe a lot of these guys are the first ones in their family to go to college so they have no expectation what it will be like, maybe they haven’t even been challenged whatsoever academically in high school, maybe they genuinely don’t or won’t care even if an effort was really made to expand their intellectual horizons, maybe it doesn’t even matter what we care to teach them since often the greatest career benefit you can get from college is the contacts you make there.

The sad truth is that in our increasingly specialized world, there is less and less room for the romantic notion of the polymath; the well-rounded individual who can balance it all. You can’t bemoan an athlete for their demanding schedule and subsequent loss of a social life while thinking the pursuits of a first-chair violinist in the university orchestra or a journalism school student who’s the editor in chief of the DTH are more noble because they have vaguely academic correlations - the latter two still have the same consequences as the first one. Our world encourages specialization, and your world and your social circle becomes what skill you have chosen to pursue excellence in. There are certainly exceptions, guys like a Myron Rolle who manage to be a starting safety for a D1 program and also earn a Rhodes Scholarship, but those are far and away the outliers.

Jones’ article and the situation in general reminded me of a great David Foster Wallace piece I read recently that was published in Esquire in 1995 about the lower rungs of pro tennis called “The String Theory”:

Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

Maybe Jones is right to question a system that we practice such willful ignorance in celebration of. As someone that currently lives in England I will certainly say that witnessing firsthand the alternative of putting young athletes into training academies at prepubescent ages yields some equally tragic results for them socially and intellectually when they don’t make it, so I’m glad that our institutions at the very least make an effort to provide an education for outstanding athletes. And as Tar Heel Fan does an excellent job of pointing out, that’s ultimately all we can ask of Carolina, is that they are making an effort. It’s not fair to speculate about what priorities or motivations an administration has behind the scenes, we only hope that the education of UNC’s student athletes is genuinely important to the people that interact with those same athletes every day. And hopefully one of the best things that comes as a result of this whole debacle is a renewed focus for the University on making sure its athletes are making an effort both on and off the field.