Friday, September 9, 2011

Should freshmen be allowed to play?

Stanford's Athletic Director, Bob Bowlsby, made waves this week with his call to ban freshmen from participating in intercollegiate athletics.  While some think such propositions are merely an aim to curb the trend of men's basketball players leaving for the NBA after their freshmen year (the NBA currently requires draftees to be at least 19 and one year removed from high school), Bowlsby's stated rationale is that sitting out a year would give student-athletes time to adjust to the academic rigors of higher education.

While the chances of such a proposal being accepted by the NCAA and its board seem like a longshot, it will be entertaining to see how the rest of college athletics responds and where the idea goes.  Even if some version of this proposal were to be accepted (some reports cite that Bowlsby has suggested mandatory red-shirting during the first year as a compromise of sorts), sidelining athletes, by itself, isn't likely to lead to the improved academic adjustment Bowlsby is hoping for.  Many athletics departments (including the one on my campus) have bridging programs designed to assist student athletes in making the transition from high school to college (both in and out of the classroom), which should become mandatory and monitored closely to ensure they are doing what they propose to do and not just orienting freshmen to the culture of athletics on a campus.  

The bigger issue here is the increasingly wide divide between the academic and athletic missions of big-time college sports institutions.  In an article published this morning in the Salt Lake Tribune, the University of Utah's head football coach, Kyle Whittingham, responded to Bowlsby's proposal.  As a fan of University of Utah athletics, I like Whittingham and think he has done a tremendous job with his team (they win games and rarely have the off-field problems that sometimes plague other high-profile teams).  However, his comments in the article reflect two problematic attitudes that seem to be prevalent among college coaches.

First, Whittingham's statment that "if a guy is ready to play, why wouldn't you play him?" suggests that he wants the best athletes on the field, whether or not they are ready for everything else that comes with being a college student (read: academics) In defense of the corps of coaches Whittingham represents, they face tremendous pressure to be successful and please alumni, donors, and administrators.  So, in many ways, they walk a difficult line as they try to put a good product on the field or court, while also pleasing those who want to hold their athletes to high academic standards.  The problem is that the pro-athletics voice is almost always stronger (and has deeper pockets) than any of the other stakeholders on a college campus.

Second, although the reporter for the story may have misrepresented Whittingham's views, the article suggests that Whittingham believes that if a student-athlete is "mature" enough to garner signficant playing time, it can be assumed that they are ready to take on a college academic load as well.  This seems like a huge stretch and one I'm sure would elicit countless anedcotes from faculty members and administrators demonstrating that athletic maturity/leadership doesn't always transfer into academic settings.  

Whittingham does, however, point out one of the biggest flaws in Bowlsby's proposal which is that it is a blanket solution for a problem that only effects a percentage of college athletes.  Of course, as a former student-athlete I am biased in my belief that there are plenty of athletes (even within high-profile football and men's basketball) who can balance athletic demands with the academic requirements of university life.  Barring all freshmen from participating punishes those who are well prepared and could potentially shield athletic departments from addressing problems which contribute to poor academic peformance (e.g. recruiting and signing students grossly underprepared for college, monopolizing athletes time by involving them in athletic activities for 30+ hours a week, and failing to provide sufficient support and resources to athletes to assist them in being successful in the classroom).  A better solution is to hold individual institutions and the NCAA as a whole more accountable for doing what they say they do--providing an experience for student-athletes that enhances their overall education.  

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