Monday, July 30, 2012

A Modest Proposal Concerning College Athletics

The discussion about the influence of collegiate sports in the wake of the Penn State scandal has me thinking back to my time as a college student-athlete and I think it leads to a solution to the structural problem.  People interviewed repeatedly said that they were reticent to come forward because the football program was too powerful.  The institutional capital was disproportionately held by the program, leading to a situation that kept the right thing from being done.  This is not an isolated situation.  Even in places you would not expect it, sports teams have undue influence.

It surprises people to know that I was a scholarship case, a division I athlete with an athletic scholarship.  Coming out of high school, I was a lacrosse goalie courted by over sixty different colleges and universities.  Cornell University was one of the schools and I was interested in part because it is a wonderful school, the coach was someone I knew and respected, and they promised to get me in to meet Carl Sagan, my hero. 

The Cornell application had two parts, the first was just basic information -- name and such.  The second part required the transcript, college essay, and all the rest of the meatier elements.  I sent in the first part only in order to show interest before my campus visit arranged by the coach.  I never sent in the second part, but a couple of weeks later I was informed that I had been admitted to the university, but in a clerical mix-up the second part of my application had been lost.  No need to rewrite the essay, I was told, just please send up the transcript.

Same sort of thing when I visited University of Pennsylvania.  The Penn coach handed me an application with a red star stamped in a box in the upper right-hand corner of the front of the application.  I was explicitly told that if I lost the application to contact him and not admissions for a special application.  It was clear that the star meant that my app would get "special consideration." 

These were Ivy League schools.  If the influence is there, imagine what it is at serious programs.  My suggestion is that there be an absolute wall between admissions and athletics.  Colleges can only pull its athletes from those who were admitted through the regular process.  College teams must be created from the actual student body.  If you cannot get into the school without your athletics considered, you cannot play for the school.  Promised scholarships would be contingent upon legitimate admission.

Would this limit the quality of play in college sports?  Probably.  But it would help clean it up and restore the institutions to a sense of balance and focus on the real mission of colleges and universities.