How Do You Think About College Sports?

There’s no question: we’re deep in the middle of the college sports season. College football teams are positioning themselves for the bowl games and BCS, while college basketball is just starting its rush towards March. So, like me, I’m sure you’re asking:

How should Christians in the academy think about college sports?

I’m not sure if the idea originated with him, but Andy Crouch first pointed out to me that two parallel worlds exist on campus: the academy and the college. To over-simplify both of them, the academy is the world of faculty — ideas, research, teaching, scholarship — while the college is the world of students — dorms, dining halls, sports. Like I said, that over-simplifies both concepts. However, when you are accustomed to thinking about the university in terms of the life of the mind (as this blog tends to do), college sports doesn’t seem to make sense.

Maybe it’s just me. I have strongly mixed emotions about college sports – “major” college sports, that is: NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball, the diversions that have several cable channels devoted to them 24-7.

On the one hand, I’m a sports fan. is the most visited site in my browser history. I have a fantasy NBA team. I loyally follow the Bengals and Reds, who have each given me a playoff appearance in the past 12 months, which means I’m now legally committed to follow them for the next 15 years as a condition of Cincinnati residency. In high school, it was an annual ritual for me to stay up till 1am watching Kentucky’s Midnight Madness – the first official practice (practice!) of the college basketball season. I even read sports books about teams I care nothing about.

On the other hand, I have a very difficult time understanding how major college football and men’s basketball furthers the missions of universities. The best justifications I can see for them is the sense of solidarity they create between student, faculty, alumni, and the community, and the communal joy they (occasionally) create. As important as those may be, they hardly seem worth the millions of dollars spent on college sports or the personal sacrifices made by student-athletes.

How do you think about college sports? Whether or not you’re a sports fan, do you think major sports programs can be justified as part of a university?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    James commented on November 16, 2010 Reply

    The difficulty understanding this is a common one for academics, who tend to

    (1) underrate the community dimensions of college/university life
    (2) dissociate the accomplishments of mind and body (though personal fitness is often valued)
    (3) dislike consideration of financial transactions (despite welcoming the money they receive)

    Perhaps your point about watching sports, rather than playing them, is a good place to start rethinking the question. Collegiate athletic success is mentally demanding (as philosopher Tom Morris notes in his book on Pascal, Making Sense of It All ).

    But another starting point might be consideration of the more general fact of specialization: students of science will study history or literature less, and vice versa. Should a college which permits such specialization not also recognize athletic development as a field of human endeavor worthy of focus, devotion, and effort?

      Micheal Hickerson commented on November 16, 2010 Reply


      Those are excellent starting points. My problems, I guess, are not so much with sports in and of themselves, but with the current NCAA system. Arne Duncan pretty well expresses my complaints in this NY Times article.

        James commented on November 17, 2010 Reply

        Should we be equally happy with an athlete who decides after a year or two that he’s learned enough of his sport in college, and is ready for the pros, as with a Bill Gates, who decides Harvard’s not worth his time?

        In both cases, the student is choosing his future. If I understand Secretary Duncan, the difference is that the NBA doesn’t permit an 18-year-old to come straight there, making an unwanted, temporary enrollment in college necessary if the young player wants to keep on playing competitively.

        Or looked at from the other direction, should we consider the dramatic increase in tuition (and loans) as a similar exploitation of the classroom as what troubles us on the court or gridiron?

        I do suspect that almost every college has programs that cost it more than it takes in. For most colleges, that includes athletics. It wouldn’t surprise me if for most it also includes literatue and several of the arts.

    James commented on November 16, 2010 Reply

    Studying XHTML should perhaps also be required of students of history and philosophy? If you can fix the \close italics,\ I’d be grateful.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on November 16, 2010 Reply

      No problem – fixed! I think it’s more the fault of our lack-of-context “instructions” – I’ll see about fixing them.

  • Kevin commented on November 17, 2010 Reply

    There is a third world on college campuses that is hidden from sight–the world of the financial administrators and fund-raisers. Once upon a time, college sports were part of building the community, but increasingly, athletic policies are shaped by the extent to which they generate revenue streams of “soft” money (money which has no restrictions) and increase the ability of the college to solicit alumni donations. Sports are increasingly evaluated in terms of these revenue streams. Think of the recent case where Quinnipiac University tried to cut women’s volleyball and replace it with cheerleading. The former lost money, the latter produced a more significant revenue stream for the college.

    This is part of a larger issue in which many aspects of higher education are shaped by efforts to raise money. In public institutions, this problem is particularly acute as they try to balance their books without massive tuition increases in the wake of government funding cuts. It seems that whenever there is a press release about anything, there is a hand out for donations, as well. In the worst cases, the accomplishments of students and faculty–whether social, academic, or athletic–are treated based on their ability to empower fundraising and not the intrinsic significance of the accomplishment.

    So I see the current treatment of college sports as parallel to the current push for overhead generating grants (without any celebration of non-overhead generating prestigious fellowships), and other initiatives explicitly tied to fundraising, such as special programs for students, like study abroad, in which between 5 and 20 per cent of every dollar given for the program is skimmed by the college . So I’m in favor of athletics as part of the college experience, just as I’m in favor of research, scholarship, teaching, and experiences outside of the classroom. I worry, though, that obtaining a financial benefit is starting to trump benefiting the students.

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on November 27, 2010 Reply

    Related story on the media’s creation of “larger than life” sports figures/personas (rise & fall) in the 1980s — athletes/teams who must win/”perform” no matter the situation (even for the college). Comment: Higher education (on all levels) can push back in culture-making. What other examples do people have to offer than Joe Paterno of Penn State — discussed in interview/book? Concern: Have we really found a response to U of Maryland star Len Bias’ cocaine overdose and death by heart failure three days after being drafted by the Celtics (1986)? Note: receives a significant amount of attention early in the show.

    Radio Smart Talk
    Tuesday, November 23

    “Sports have always had superstars. But how we define a sports star today is far different from past eras. Babe Ruth may have led a hardscrabble, hard drinking life, but that wasn’t how Americans knew him – the Sultan of Swat was mythologized for his exploits on the field, not demonized for his behavior off of it. When did that all change? According to author Michael Weinreb, we need only to travel back to the 1980s, the dawn of ESPN, and the rise of 24 hour sports coverage, which first embraced larger-than-life personalities in sports more for their marketing prowess than for their actual accomplishments. From Bo Knows to the Superbowl Shuffle, he chronicles a decade that gave rise to supersized egos, salaries, and personalities. Guest: Michael Weinreb, author, Bigger than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the 80s Created the Modern Athlete.”

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