Athletics in the Small-College Marketplace

Campus sports are not perfect. But they do more good than harm.

As a long-time faculty member at a small, private, liberal-arts college, I’ve come to dread my daily glance at the industry’s trade journals, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Sooner rather than later, I’m going to come across another article about the closing of a small college or about faculty layoffs and/or slashed academic programs (usually in the traditional liberal arts, like philosophy, history, and languages), done in a desperate attempt to balance a budget long in deficit.

Imagine my surprise when I came across a different sort of headline—“Seeking an Enrollment Hail Mary, Small Colleges Look to Athletics.” Finally, I thought, someone isn’t just giving up on or taking an axe to academic programs. To be sure, the article isn’t all sunshine and roses. For every Adrian College or Calvin University that seems to have prospered with the addition of new athletic programs, there’s a Fontbonne whose Hail Mary was batted away in the end zone.

What’s more, we don’t just have to rely on equivocal anecdotes. Thanks to the Urban Institute, there are some data. Its study shows that, for Division III schools (many of which are small liberal-arts colleges), “adding sports or full-time head coaches has little relationship with changes in enrollment.”

Some professors disdain athletics and student-athletes as detracting from colleges’ academic mission.Some of my colleagues might derive a kind of cold comfort from this finding. They might disdain athletics and student-athletes as detracting from the academic mission. My own feelings are mixed, in part because my daughter was a student-athlete and in part because I’m a lifelong sports fan, beginning with baseball in my childhood and continuing in my love affair with big-time college football (go Dawgs!).

I begin with this observation. Like some of my colleagues (a dwindling number, I’m afraid), I became a professor because I loved learning, by myself and with others. For me (albeit at a much lower level), students and colleagues are what Socrates called hetairoi (comrades) in the pursuit of wisdom. But my activity is embedded in an institution that long ago grew beyond the conversations portrayed in Platonic dialogues or the simple picture, painted by President James Garfield, of Williams College president Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other.

There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the most respectable is that the pursuit of veritas (Harvard’s motto, honored all too often in the breach) is, in many fields, expensive. All that scientific equipment costs big bucks. And the funding for it comes from all sorts of sources that are, to put it mildly, for the most part not interested in knowledge for its own sake. More to the point, especially for institutions like mine, is the fact that most of our potential students aren’t simply interested in knowledge for its own sake. I can sing encomia as well as the next guy to the natural curiosity of the young, but, like Socrates in the Republic, I recognize that this curiosity is, in a sense, countercultural. So much in our culture, indeed in every culture, militates against the pursuit of learning for its own sake. Yes, knowledge and virtue are their own rewards, but money-making is encouraged and rewarded by, well, money, while social-justice activism attracts attention and gives its practitioners the comforting experience of righteously speaking truth to power.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but, because they are revenue-seeking institutions, colleges and universities necessarily engage in what the ancients would have called sophistry. They pursue money, not Veritas.

And they’ve discovered that there’s not much of a market for logs with the proverbial Mark Hopkins at one end. In order to generate revenue, colleges and universities have to appeal to the market that exists: with academic programs preparing students for the hot careers du jour; with the proliferation of currently fashionable microcredentials; with residential, dining, and recreational facilities that correspond to the expectations of affluent students and appeal to the “American dreams” of their less affluent fellows; with shining examples of social justice pursued; and with extracurricular and co-curricular programs that scratch every imaginable late-adolescent, parental, or donor itch.

Athletics are not so different from mock trials, student theatrical groups, and literary magazines.Enter athletics, which in this respect is not so different from mock trial, student theatrical and musical groups, literary magazines, or any other club that a student or student-affairs professional can imagine. All attract the interest and attention of some students or prospective students. While at the small-college level none is likely to be excellent in its own right, each may serve some purpose (beyond generating tuition revenue) in an educational setting. Each may develop talents and skills that lead to lifelong vocations or avocations. Each may build community among students and connections between faculty and staff. While some are more closely connected to academic programs than others, all have the potential either to support the central educational mission of the institution or to detract from it. Students could be held academically accountable by their coaches or theatre directors, or they could be led or permitted to prioritize the extracurricular over the curricular.

Notice that I emphasize the educational mission. The grave temptation that all our sophistic institutions face is that they emphasize generating revenue over teaching students, introducing them to the life of the mind, or cultivating the liberal arts (that is, the arts of being free). This is where we get the jokes about Harvard being a hedge fund that happens to have some educational programs or many schools being some combination of country club and mental-health facility with a few educational programs on the side.

In this respect, I think that athletics—at least at the Division III level—are far from the worst of the extracurricular or non-curricular undertakings pursued by our colleges and universities. While the fieldhouse, the soccer pitch, the pool, and the football field might not be the proverbial playing fields of Eton, there is some truth to the old saying about those fields and war, probably wrongly attributed to the Duke of Wellington. College athletics can emphasize and cultivate personal responsibility, self-discipline, and teamwork, which are certainly life skills useful in the classroom and beyond a student’s collegiate years. What’s more, the metrics of athletic success can’t be inflated the way grades almost always are.

I recognize that there can be all sorts of abuses in college athletics, as we’ve seen from the appalling stories coming out of places like Penn State and Michigan State, among others. There are surely ways in which young people whose identities are too closely identified with athletic success are vulnerable to older authority figures with malign intentions. But that’s true in any “educational” setting where there’s a lot at stake, not just in athletics. I might even argue that in Division III, because the athletic stakes are lower and there’s less of an overwhelming emphasis on the athletic side of the student-athlete duality, there’s less risk in that endeavor than in some others.

Athletic programs might actually serve as a source of ideological and intellectual diversity.I conclude with several observations, growing out of conversations with coaches and student-athletes over the years. First, while there might be racial and ethnic divisions in sports, teams that manifest and emphasize these divisions are rarely successful. Inclusion takes precedence over diversity, you might say. And the unforgiving metrics of performance certainly don’t permit equity, (mis)understood as equality of outcome. Second, I’ve had student-athletes frequently tell me that the discourse in the locker room is very different from that in the classroom. They will say things to one another, honestly and differently, that they won’t risk saying in the classroom, where the unofficial monoculture of the contemporary university is enforced by student opinion and also, all too frequently, by faculty. Finally, I would venture to say that, unlike lots of academic departments, many athletic departments don’t use political tests to screen their coaches. As a political conservative on an overwhelmingly liberal campus, I can have more honest and productive conversations with some of the coaches than with many of my faculty colleagues. So I’ll suggest that athletic programs might actually serve as a source of ideological and intellectual diversity on otherwise politically homogeneous campuses.

In the end, I think that athletic programs are far from substantively the worst responses to the challenges of the higher-education marketplace. They can offer some moral and communal goods that aren’t commonly promoted in the typical college classroom. And, at the Division III level at least, the charlatanry of the occasional coach is much less likely to corrupt what remains of the intellectual and academic integrity of our colleges and universities.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University. His daughter, Charlotte, enjoyed four years on the swim team at Wingate University.