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Laurence I. Peterson column: The world is changing, and so should universities
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College Athletics

Laurence I. Peterson column: The world is changing, and so should universities

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Every time Thomas Jefferson hears the words “intercollegiate sports,” he turns over in his grave. For him, universities should be known for “academic excellence” and not for their sports teams. If you ask when this changed, the answer is in an article by a sports historian titled, “Institutionalized Hypocrisy: The Myth of Intercollegiate Athletics.” This piece explains why anyone giving intercollegiate sports serious thought will conclude they contribute nothing to university education.

NCAA sports are costing many Virginia college students more than $2,000 each year solely for the privilege of having intercollegiate athletics on their campuses. These students graduate at least $8,000 poorer and often leave college with burdensome debt that will take years to pay off. For perspective, less than 5% of them participate in college sports. Many believe this unfair cost penalty needs to change and that college sports now overshadow the educational role.

Rather than enhance the primary purpose of a university, intercollegiate sports detract from the educational mission. These sports programs divert critical resources from academic priorities and are a distraction for serious-minded students. Besides adding more teaching faculty, universities must seek ways to invest resources in potentially enriching educational experiences, such as travel abroad, funding undergraduate research and industry-vetted programs.

Intercollegiate sports compromise many students’ education, but student-athletes who participate in the games suffer the most. Although athletes are beneficiaries of paid college educations, they lose out because — in most instances — they are in degree programs that will not provide them with skills valued in the workplace. The time and energy needed for practicing and training take away from academic studies. After working out several hours a day, athletes return to their rooms too exhausted to focus on their homework and classroom preparation. Many might not even have the energy to go to their classes.

An additional downside for athletes is their inability to participate in high-impact educational experiences such as travel abroad, undergraduate scholarship, internships and capstone programs. Since these enrichment programs have a cultural or career focus, Black athletes and students from low-income families likely would benefit more than other students.

The Knight Commission College Athletics Financial Information (CAFI) database provides the cost for intercollegiate sports. At James Madison University in 2018, expenses were $52 million, with $39 million (75%) coming from student fees and tuition. Since undergraduate enrollment was 19,923 students, the premium for the privilege of having NCAA sports on campus was nearly $2,000 per year.

Four other Virginia universities have equally high costs. At Old Dominion University, the cost per student is $1,940 per year; Norfolk State University is more than $2,400 per year; The College of William & Mary costs students a whopping $2,500 per year; and Virginia Military Institute’s cost per student is an astronomical $3,780 per year. If these students complete their degrees in four years (most take longer), the penalty for intercollegiate sports exceeds $8,000 and further increases their student debt burdens.

Competitive sports programs serve an important role on college campuses for student-athletes by developing self-confidence, building leadership skills and promoting good health. However, these goals are accomplished more cost effectively with robust intramural programs for all students and club sports for student-athletes. The cost is not insignificant but is a small fraction of the price (significantly less than 10%) of NCAA-level intercollegiate programs.

With strong leadership from the top, many Virginia universities could eliminate intercollegiate sports, and replace them with comprehensive intramural and club sports programs. Using redirected funds, universities can restore and add more faculty positions, create new career-focused degree programs, maintain commitments for existing athletic scholarships and enable more academic scholarships for students from low-income families. These universities could rebrand themselves as forward-looking institutions with a solid commitment to student success, career-focused education and the economic well-being of their graduates.

“Colleges and universities that want to continue unchanged along their current path ... will be left by the wayside.” That’s the message in an impactful and visionary book by Richard DeMillo, “Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities.”

Laurence I. Peterson is dean emeritus, College of Science & Mathematics at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He is a former Virginia resident and a grandparent of two students enrolled in Virginia public universities. Contact him at: lpeterso@kennesaw.edu

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