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This guest editorial was published in the Raleigh, N.C. News and Observer on December 15, 1985.
Lewis Carroll, a logician better known for "Alice in Wonderland," held that a person is often convinced a course of action is right because he cannot think of an alternative. His dictum applies-to the conflict over the place of athletics in higher education.
Few people realize how long collegiate athletic abuse has persisted. Football as we would recognize it was first played in 1875 by Harvard and Yale. From the start, Harvard viewed athletics as amateur while Yale viewed them as professional, and the problem of athletic abuses germinated quickly. As early as 1885, The Harvard Athletic Committee made attempts to control them and even banned football altogether.
Because those attempts failed, we delude ourselves by believing that similar attempts will succeed now, for as in 1885 money propels collegiate sports toward professionalism. The desire of the poor for increased opportunities is also a propellant. So no matter what academic requirements are mandated, ways will be found to circumvent and weaken them.
Strict standards will always be opposed by athletic departments pressured to produce winning teams and by the disadvantaged, and any compromise that produces weak standards will merely perpetuate the abuses.
Further, the place of the athlete in higher education is very peculiar. What ridicule would our colleges be subjected to if they required students with academic ability to demonstrate athletic talent by making the third team in some major sport in order to graduate?
Yet that is exactly what we subject the collegiate athlete to. What makes us think that a person with athletic ability but no demonstrated intellect belongs in a college and can graduate if he puts his mind to it?
Talents abound but no one possesses them all. The scholar-athlete is a rare species.
To recruit the athlete who lacks intellectual ability subverts the academic ideal, and to recruit the intelligent student who lacks much athletic ability makes a mockery of sport.
The marriage of athletics to academics has never been fully sanctioned. Athletic programs rarely get governmental financial support. This has itself brought about abuse. Coaches and athletic directors must be fund raisers. People who contribute want favored treatment. Losing teams have difficulty attracting backers, so coaches must produce winners, regardless of the moral and academic price that must be paid.
But it is facile merely to propose that athletes who cannot meet minimum admission standards not be allowed to matriculate. We all know that the only road to success for many of them runs through the college campus.
It's equally facile to propose that these athletes continue to be admitted. Not only are they under terrifying academic pressure, they often are exploited by the school for their athletic abilities. So the solution lies in building another road for the unintellectual but talented athlete to travel.
Models are readily available. Tennis clubs exist that promote youth-tennis, sponsor tournaments, and build champions. Major league baseball has fall-team affiliates where younger players can demonstrate their talents and acquire the experience needed to play in the big leagues. Why don't we have similar institutions for basketball and football?
Two reasons are evident: the money and notoriety our colleges get from this unnatural marriage and the money needed from private sources to finance such alternatives.
How can our colleges be convinced that they do not need this venal system to maintain the income acquired from major sports? And how can civic organizations and private entrepreneurs be convinced that alternative institutions can be profitable?
The fear of the entrepreneur is easy to understand. Minor league baseball is a money-losing proposition. Tennis, the exception, requires considerably less overhead, and the financial success of collegiate sports does not alleviate the fear, for fan support of collegiate teams is based more on institutional loyalties than on love of sport.
Without such committed spectators, high-overhead team sports are not profitable. But with sufficient private and civic resources, enough teams unaffiliated with colleges could be assembled to be compete with collegiate teams. If colleges played not only each other but non-collegiate teams as well, fans support could be sustained. Colleges could maintain their programs for true scholar-athletes and their incomes. And the nonintellectual athlete could demonstrate his ability without the pain of being where he knows, and we know, he doesn't belong. Academic standards could be maintained, and athletes uninterested in college would not have to endure the academic duress and institutional exploitation they now do.