It’s Time to Build Sports Academies

Students, colleges, and the nation will benefit.

When the men’s basketball team at Dartmouth voted to unionize earlier this year, the college’s president vowed to take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. Her decision was based on the belief that athletes are “students first” and that paying them to play would “undermine” the school’s fundamental mission.

In making clear this stance, Sian Bielock is following in the footsteps of Ernest Martin Hopkins, a predecessor who declined an offer to Dartmouth’s undefeated football team to play in the Rose Bowl in 1937. He explained that, “if one held to the fundamental philosophy of college men incidentally playing football as against football players incidentally going to college, most of the evils of intercollegiate competition would be avoided.”

When academics take a back seat, participating schools no longer qualify as true colleges and universities.Even if Dartmouth prevails in court, it will not be the end of the issue. Division I programs are run, managed, and monetized as if they belonged to a professional sports league. NCAA revenue for 2022-23 was nearly $1.3 billion, and the association recently struck a deal with the Power Five conferences to pay players directly. These developments make a mockery of amateurism. When academics take a back seat, participating schools no longer qualify as true colleges and universities. Instead, they become, at least in part, sports-preparation factories. That’s fine provided the institutions in question do not purport to be anything else. The trouble, however, is that they do.

In contrast, other countries make no pretense about their universities. They acknowledge that the mission of some of them is first and foremost to develop professional athletes in various sports. Germany is the best example. Students who are interested in making sports their careers go to sportschulen. These schools, originally designed to train athletes for the Olympics, specialize in various sports in the same way that some American universities specialize in various academic subjects. Depending on the sport, German children can enter as early as the 5th grade.

Given the importance that athletics play in many universities in the U.S. and the revenue they generate, it is far too much to expect colleges to convert to sports academies. Instead, let’s build new ones dedicated solely to their real purpose. The move would surely encounter stiff resistance from vested interests, but that comes as no surprise.

Indeed, change in higher education has always faced an uphill battle. Charles Sykes in Profscam calls this the “paradox at the heart of academic culture.” Professors demand absolute freedom for themselves, but they offer no similar tolerance to anyone who challenges their own privileges. Make no mistake, professors possess great power in deciding anything that threatens their status. Attempts to give greater weight to teaching in awarding tenure, for example, have gained little traction. That’s probably because salaries of professors over the years have continued to rise in inverse proportion to their teaching loads.

Nevertheless, higher education can be saved, provided colleges and universities accept the results of a reality check. They can no longer operate as they have for far too long. It’s one thing to rewrite their mission statements to stress diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s the easy part. But unless schools make the current needs and interests of students their number-one priority, they will not be able to play the role they have in the past. Already, trust in higher education is at an all-time low. A much-discussed 2018 Gallup poll found that only 26 percent of surveyed students believed that what transpired in higher education was “relevant to their work and daily life.”

The development of sports-focused schools means there will no longer be a deception at the heart of big-university mission statements.That’s where the proposal to establish sports academies comes into play. They offer an alternative to the present menu of post-secondary education. The primary argument against them is that they are not academic. But not all high-school graduates want a purely academic education. Their interests and abilities lie elsewhere. Then there is the assertion that some such academies will be more successful than others. But so what? The same can be said about the present lineup of traditional colleges and universities. We accept that outcome. Why should sports academies be treated any differently in justifying their existence? The double standard is particularly troubling at a time when young people are being urged to pursue their formal education beyond high-school graduation.

Critics will go on to say that the establishment of sports academies will unavoidably result in some graduates not qualifying for an athletic career. True, but at least they know that going in. Furthermore, the development of new, sports-focused schools means that there will no longer be a deception at the heart of big-university mission statements. Purists will bemoan the transformation, but the benefits will ultimately allow reformers to prevail.

Consider the following:

First, students under this new dispensation would be in a far better position to make realistic choices about their formal education. Those who were indeed serious about academics would no longer be misled by universities that care far more about football than chemistry.

Second, colleges might regain some of the respect they once held. According to Gallup, confidence in higher education fell from 57 percent to 36 percent in the past decade. With clearly stated missions, colleges would be able to streamline their operations to support the achievement of their specific academic goals. No longer would they have to try to be all things to all students. Specialization might replace generalization.

Finally, the nation would profit from greater clarity about what college actually is. Big-money athletes who throw their cash around, attend class only enough to guarantee their eligibility, and transfer schools every year or two surely discourage those students who want an actual education. By funneling the former into sports academies, we might see a renewed attention to the scholarly work that used to be the whole point of the college experience.

Higher education in this country is at an historic crossroads. Like it or not, we are in the midst of a massive economic disruption comparable to the seismic changes that followed the Industrial Revolution. Traditional college for all was well-intentioned, but it is at least partly responsible for the mess this country is in today. Not everyone is college material. Charles Murray in Real Education calls this notion “education romanticism.” Yet as long as we continue to deceive ourselves, our traditional degrees will too often not be worth the paper they’re printed on.

Walt Gardner was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.