A question re the American school system and sports

As Johnny Foreigner there is something I’ve been wondering about the American school system. What exactly is the connection between academic achievement and achivement in sports, am I mistaken in the assumption that achievement in the latter can make up for poor ability in the former?

I’ve read a few things that suggest American students can get into university/college courses based on sporting achievements alone.

Am I way off base here? I apologise for the rambling nature of this question but I’m not sure how to frame it properly.

I’m reading this article from The Gazette which inspired this question:

It appears to have been updated and the previous edition had a photo with the caption: “Eric Thomas came to the academy as a soccer player, but soon became a spy.”

It is certainly true that in some cases athletes have been helped along in terms of admission and academics due to their physical prowess.

There is, however, a mythos in the US of the ‘Student Athlete’ where college athletes are also scholars. While this is true is many/most cases - especially in sports that aren’t revenue generating - there are always cases where an athlete is found to have had poor academic prep/ability yet was provided passing grades and such to enable him to continue on-the-field performance.

Hell, poor Dexter Manley, a football player for the Washington Redskins in the 1980s and 1990s got his degree from Oklahoma State University while it was later discovered he was functionally illiterate.

In the end, it comes down to the fact that American higher education has perverse incentives in place. Such school may have a mandate to provide college-level education to their students, but they also have the opportunity to generate millions (tens of millions, hundreds of millions?) of dollars per year by putting a competitive team on various fields (football, basketball, to a lesser extent hockey and baseball and some others). That provides a demand to lower academic standards for those student athletes who might not otherwise get in based on their scholastic achievements.

The problem, of course, is that by doing so they run the risk of damaging the reputation of the school’s primary product: a degree. By cheapening it one could decrease demand for that school’s degrees. I think that’s negligible but it’s still out there.

Still, the solution - IMHO - is simple. Make those students professional athletes. If they WANT an education allow them to pursue it. But do away with the myth that all of them want it and allow them to just play for a salary. If some kid’s too dumb - or never had the right opportunities - to go to college but can throw a football a mile don’t cheat, embrace that and move on. At a minimum it would eliminate a certain level of hypocrisy.

ETA: Note, too, that this rarely applies to any sport that is a cost to the school. Competitive badminton and such is rarely a source of student-athlete scandals.

Thanks for the comprehensive reply, very interesting!

Another aspect that might be relevant is the path which young people take to reach professional sports.
In America, the path is through the school system.
In other countries, I think the path begins outside school, in youth sports leagues which are organized by the city, or other organizations.
In america, every high school has a large sports program and plays competitively (and sometimes very,very seriously!) against other schools.
And this continues on, after age 18—what starts in the high schools , continues in the universities.Then the professional leagues hire the university champions.

Now , of course, everybody is enrolled in high school—but not every person should be enrolled at university.

But for the best atheletes,who are worth millions of dollars to the university for their muscle power, their brainpower is ignored…

I was present in a study room at the library of a large university, where a member of the football team (we’ll call him John)was meeting with another student—his personal tutor, hired to help him study for an exam. I overheard the teacher say to him, "No, John that word is “to fulfill”-- and then spent a minute explaining the definition of the word fulfill for him.

It’s probably useful to point out that not all sports are revenue-generating for a college/university, and not all colleges/universities have or are interested in revenue-generating sports.

E.g. OSU (from Jonathan Chance’ post) is very interested in football - they’re an important source of professional football players for the NFL, and so game ticket sales, merchandise, etc are big money makers for the school - but their swim team is probably not generating any revenue so they might not be offering any scholarships to swimmers.

And another e.g. Harvard generates little if no revenue from any of their sports. Sports at Harvard are a cost center not a profit center. So Harvard doesn’t admit any athletes that are not academically up to snuff. Unlike OSU which will look first at football ability and second at smarts.

Yeah, the University of North Carolina is having a little scandal:
A’s for Athletes, but Charges of Fraud at North Carolina

My own anecdote is I had friends who got into the schools they did pretty much because they were good athletes. One friend, a future all-american in lacrosse was ranked dead last in the class–the HS college adviser accidentally left the class standings on his desk one morning where we saw it. One day he couldn’t meet us for lunch because the coach for Harvard was taking him out for a recruiting lunch. That was funny. Other guys got into the Naval Academy and Hopkins–fairly selective schools for non-athletes.

ETA: Saw Motorgirl’s post. My buddy did not end up at Harvard, don’t think he even applied.

I worked with (not for) a large state university with a large sports program. I always enjoyed comparing the majors of revenue sports atheletes (usually kinesiology or sports management) with those of the track team (often physics or microbiology).

Baseball is one of the major sports in the United States. I think football has probably usurped its standing as the most popular sport now, but for a long time it was the most popular spectator sport.

Baseball doesn’t rely on colleges so much. They have their own “farm system” that consists of several levels of minor league teams. They have no problem bringing in many foreign athletes who have never been to college. There are some college baseball teams, but it is a very minor collegiate sport. Sports like football and basketball more or less farmed out their apprenticeship/training programs to the universities while baseball built up its own program. You might remember that when Michael Jordan retired from basketball, he wanted to try his hand at baseball. He was placed in a minor league team at first to see what he could do.

I also think until a few years ago, the professional football and basketball leagues had a rule that they would not sign players until the year their class would have graduated from college, regardless if the player was still attending. I believed that got dropped as a result of a lawsuit from some college students who wanted to drop out early and get a job. They alleged restraint of trade or something like that.

But I do have a question. It was my impression that (with notable exceptions) most college football players majored in Physical Education. Not true?

ETA: I see seal_cleaner commented on my question. Thanks.

This is a great article about a student at the Univ of Memphis and his journey to graduation. He is a struggling student who has needed lots of help from the university. If it wasn’t for football, he probably would not have been admitted to a four year college right out of high school.

I have worked in US public high schools for the last 14 years and I wonder why we have school sponsored sports teams. If students need excercise then offer a physical education class…but if they need organized teams do it through club sports teams. In fact, I brought this up to several teachers the other day and I was treated as a crackpot.

Then the very next day, I listened as a teacher explained how her daughter carefully chose a college in California where the teacher’s daughter will have the best chance to play on the waterpolo team. The daughter just played in a few games and gave us an update. The whole time I am thinking ‘why choose a college based on waterpolo…why not choose a college based on majors that interest you, possibilities for internships, graduation rates, professor to student ratio or things like that?’ The school the daughter is going to is a D3 school so she isn’t even getting a scholarship to play.

I don’t know how we got here but I don’t like it. I think the best way forward is to divorce athletics from academics in both secondary and higher education.

Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal in September 2010 listing the majors for the players at some of the top schools. The list below adds up to 1,005 players of which 500 are majoring in business, sociology, communications or liberal arts. I believe that business is the most popular major among students in general and the communications majors may be thinking about working in TV after their playing days are over.

Business		155
Sociology		134
Communications		108
Liberal Arts		103
General Studies		91
Sports and Exercise	79
Social Work		65
Law and Justice		61
Sports Management	39
Education		35
History			25
Psychology		25
Engineering 		20
Political Science 	18
Linguistics		11
Agricultural 		10
Hospitality		7
Art, Music, Film	6
English			5
Zoology			2
Architecture		2
Mathematics		2
Spanish			1
Philosophy 		1

I don’t have a cite for this right now, but I once read that this has its origins before the American Revolution, when the trend in upper class British universities was to turn out well-rounded intellectual/adventurers and athletics was considered essential. Presumably, American schools are carrying on the trend to this day. The book contrasted this with other European countries, where universities focused on specialized fields of study.

I’d rather see remedial classes as needed, but then, that goes for non-athletes as well. One consequence of the amount of subject choice American students get and of the way admissions are handled is that you run into people whose SAT and GPA are fine but whose coursework in HS is completely unrelated to what they’re doing in college: that should be adressed by the school itself.

Yes, and one of the biggest possible benefits of being picked for a professional team’s youth divisions is scholarships. They’ll pay for school and, if required, board, provide tutors, etc. But the money comes from a pro team, not from whichever school the kids are enrolled in (which depending on the family may not be the same one other teammates are in). By the time they’re college age, they’re either at a level where they get a salary or out of the “pro track”; those athletes who wish to go to college pay for it like everybody else and get treated like any other student.

Of the four major professional team sports, baseball and ice hockey largely depend on the lower professional leagues to develop players; whereas, football and basketball largely use colleges as their development leagues.

The NCAA allows member universities to issue a certain number of scholarships to students based upon athletic ability (as opposed to academic accomplishment or financial needs).
In the top football and basketball schools, these athletic programs generate sufficient revenue that the system is essentially professional except for the fact that the players are unpaid.

It’s an extremely corrupt system, one plagued by exploitation of student-athletes (the majority of which will not get into professional sports), cheating, bribery, and massively perverse incentives, among other things.

Many student-athletes are unable to do anything with their student status, either because they didn’t have the aptitude, didn’t have the interest, didn’t have the time or energy (due to the demands of the sports program), or we’re not given the proper guidance (they are basically kids who are being exploited for their potential). Many of them suffer debilitating injuries or simply fail to become superstars and are subsequently abandoned by the system.

Either way, many if them have been coddled and pampered since their teenage years and never guided to develop their skills or education outside sports while being spoiled with sex, adulation, and gifts. When they don’t become one of the select few to make it to the big leagues, they find themselves in a tough situation. Meanwhile, their universities have milked them for their economic value without having to pay them for their work. (Universities require then to sign away their personality/publicity rights for life so they can continue to profit from films, jerseys, posters, etcetera, using their names and likenesses without ever having to pay them.)

It’s a sad, dirty system.

Although it is true that some sports bring in large amounts of revenue to some US universities, and thus encourage the provision of scholarships based on athletic prowess being given to “students” without any academic aptitude, sports based scholarships also seem to exist in sports which are not profit centers. In these cases, students are held to normal academic standards, but the financing of their education may largely dependent on their sporting prowess. I do not think this is “a thing” in most (if any) other countries.

My former brother-in-law, who is no slouch intellectually, and who subsequently became a very successful attorney, went to university on a football scholarship, though not to a big football school where the football team would have been generating significant revenue. Likewise, my niece (daughter of a different brother-in-law, himself an academic), also a very bright girl quite capable of getting into a good university purely on her intellectual merits, paid for her education (entirely or in part, I am not sure) with a volleyball scholarship. I doubt that there is much money in college women’s volleyball (although it may attract some donations from alumni). Again, a few years back, I had a student in one of the classes I taught whom I was told was on a soccer scholarship. I know because the athletics department took some interest in her progress,and wanted a report from me. In fact, on the one hand she was a perfectly adequate student, but on the other I am fairly sure that the university was making little of any profit (and, more likely a loss) from its women’s soccer program.

It is true that, as other posters have been saying, where university sports become highly profitable (which is very far from at all colleges or for all sports) it can corrupt the university’s educational mission, but even where that is not the case, sport plays a role in the complex and deeply inefficient and irrational system of higher educational financing in America. (Somewhat like the US medical insurance system, on the one hand university fees are ludicrously inflated, but, on the other hand, many students wind up having much or all of this money paid for them by a labyrinthine -and rather arbitrary and unjust - system of scholarships and grants, often from the university itself.)

I think technological advances are going to force us to re-examine our whole structure of public education in this country and I’m not sure if inter-scholastic sports will find a place in whatever replaces the current one. We’ll be developing tools that allow more kids to work from home and once local governments see the resulting cost savings on infrastructure – of which sports facilities are a big part – then they will take a hard look at the marriage of school and sport.

When it becomes far cheaper to decentralize schools into smaller, more local operations where only 20% of the student body physically attends on any given day, it’s going to be pretty hard for a school to field a football team. If the community wants one, then the community will have to fund it and organize it in a different way.

I know that someone will be along to explain the values of sports to a school and I appreciate those arguments. But when placed in a bigger perspective, schools must and will change and sports teams won’t be a part of the new and more efficient equation.

I believe that colleges offer scholarships in some women’s sports even though they don’t generate revenue because Title IX requires equity for both genders.

This type of corruption may be rare in non-revenue sports, but it’s far from unheard of. Bob Backlund wrestled for North Dakota State University; like Manley, he was functionally illiterate.*
*This may be a promotional sham, but if it is, no one I know of has broken character about it.

Here is every pick in the 2013 MLB draft. As you can see, Major League Baseball teams still rely heavily on colleges to develop players. There are certainly a TON of players coming out of high school, and there is a very large pool of players not represented here who are undrafted free agent signings from other countries - but to state that baseball doesn’t rely on colleges very much is a misnomer. As is stating that “there are some college baseball teams” as if it were a minor number compared to football or something. Far from it - look at that draft list again, and note the number of tiny little colleges you’ve likely never even heard of. That’s because baseball is a much cheaper sport to sponsor than football, which requires a vastly larger roster, and much more expensive equipment.

Basketball players were able to be drafted right out of high school, then the NBA changed that to require at least one year of college. Football players are eligible to be drafted by the NFL three years after their high school graduation. For MLB, the rules are complicated - players can be drafted right out of high school. But if they enroll in college, they need to wait until after their junior year. If they enroll in junior college, they can be drafted at any time.

Similarly, professional hockey has various junior leagues, but some NHL players play college hockey before going professional.

So just to summarize a lot of the above, large universities give scholarship money based on athletic prowess to students in a large variety of sports, men’s and women’s.

These students are expected to at least meet the minimum academic baselines for the university. It’s certainly possible given the limited number of people who are accepted every year that someone with a slightly better academic record is not accepted over someone with more athletic ability, but all should still meet the requirements.

However, for those few sports that tend to bring in larger amounts of reputation/visibility/prestige, various coaches and other administration members have been known to find ways around any academic requirements in order to get the best athletic players.