Education Through Athletics – Possibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics Reform

This week’s EXSS Impact Post is developed by Professor Erianne Weight.

In a previous EXSS Impact blog post exploring reform approaches in intercollegiate athleticsweight1, we discussed the tension between athletics and the academy.  Many university stakeholders fully support athletics within the academy and view it as an educational endeavor complimentary to the university mission with added brand-building, relationship-forging, and student-drawing benefits.  On the other end of the spectrum, stakeholders have condemned the academy for allowing athlete exploitation, excessive commercialism, and unprincipled behavior that undermines the educational mission of the university.  Regardless of perspective, athletics has traditionally been supported within the university’s organizational structure as an extra-curricular activity peripherally related to the university mission. Perhaps it is time for this to change.

weight2Why did you do this study?

Throughout our research exploring the educational impact of intercollegiate athletics on the athlete participants, several studies have highlighted the positive impact intercollegiate athletics can have on occupational,[1] psychological,[2] physiological,[3] and long-term quality of life measures.[4] These findings contribute to a growing body of literature which supports embedding the applied study of athletics within the academy similar in form to music, dance, or theatre. Prior to exploring the interest or form of what an athletics-centric curriculum may entail, we gathered baseline data to examine current practices within NCAA Division I, II, and III institutions. The full results of this research are published in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport.[5]

weight3What did you do and what did you find in this study?

Through survey of a stratified random sample of National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I, II, and III athletic academic advisors (n = 240), this exploratory study examined the prevalence, design, and institutional perceptions of classes offered exclusively for varsity athletes. Results indicate 33.9% of sample schools award credit for athletic participation (e.g. physical education), and 20.1% offer academic courses specifically for athletes (e.g. first semester “onboarding” courses, leadership courses, etc.).  Academic opportunities for athletes were greater in western, public, Division I institutions, with one of the most startling differences between western schools, wherein 65.3% award credit for participation, and southeastern schools, wherein 17.3% award credit for participation.

weight4How do these findings impact the public?

This study provides some evidence of structural and philosophical academic integration of athletics within the academy. These established courses counter the historically taboo nature of the education through athletics proposal.  This study also documents tremendous inequity in inter-institutional practices of facilitating academic courses for athletes.  This variance in institutional procedure can result in significant fluctuations in athlete time, competitive advantages, and opportunities for education through athletics.  Given the extensive policies the NCAA regulates to facilitate an even playing field, this dramatic divide in inter-institutional procedure presents an interesting challenge that warrants further inquiry.

weight5As the political-educational arena grapples with unprecedented scrutiny, faculties and administrators should focus their efforts on facilitating rich holistic educational opportunities and experiences. The athlete-educational experience that has been a concern since them inception of intercollegiate athletics has led many faculties to fear athlete-centric programming for reasons including an exacerbation of social isolation and/or the perceived nonacademic collective hubris and entitlement of athletes. Although there is a degree of isolation within every academic discipline with major-only courses and experiences that do not require justification, the unique nature of the athlete experience may necessitate additional consideration due to the social, commercial, and administrative pressures that could lead to academic clustering and athlete-segregation.

For this reason, a practical approach to athlete-centric educational experiences should be conscious of these realities and address concerns judiciously through credit limitations, cross-disciplinary faculty involvement, and the inclusion of non-athlete elite performers in the programming. Three approaches Weight & Huml (2016) recommend and expand upon in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport article include:

  1. A 3-credit “onboarding” course specific for athletes to institutionalize many of the first-semester mandatory NCAA trainings in addition to life-skills initiatives
  2. Credit for participation in intercollegiate athletics with an infusion of faculty-led education grounded in experiential learning theory practices (e.g. a faculty-led strength training course with elements of exercise physiology and nutritional principles coupled with the strength training they engage in as a team).
  3. A minor in “elite performance” which could include varsity athletes, club sport athletes, musicians, orators, dancers, thespians, etc. Courses might include performance psychology, leadership and group dynamics, performance nutrition, media training, entrepreneurship, etc. in addition to two 3-credit “field experience opportunities that allow the students to reflect upon their elite experiences, apply literature to their (on-the-court) study, meet with a faculty and field supervisor (coach) to set and track learning goals, and infuse institutionalized scholarship and growth structures into their elite pursuits of excellence.

[1] Chalfin, P., Weight, E.A., Osborne, B., Johnson, S. (2015). The value of intercollegiate athletics participation from the perspective of employers who target athletes. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. 8, 1-27.

[2] Weight, E.A., Navarro, K., Huffman, L., Smith-Ryan, A. (2014). Quantifying the psychological benefits of intercollegiate athletics participation: Implications for higher education policy and practice. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. 7, 390-409.

[3] Weight, E.A., Navarro, K., Smith-Ryan, A., Huffman, L. (2016). Holistic Education through Athletics: Health literacy of intercollegiate athletes and traditional students. The Journal of Higher Education Athletics and Innovation. 1, 38-60.

[4] Weight, E.A., Bonfiglio, A.*, DeFreese, J.D., Kerr, Z., Osborne, B. In Review. Occupational Measures of Former NCAA Athletes and Traditional Students. The Journal of Intercollegiate Sport.

[5] Weight, E.A., Huml, M.* (2016). Facilitating education through athletics: An examination of academic courses designed for NCAA athletes. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 9(2), 154-174.