Scholar Athlete, Honestly?

In the aftermath of March Madness and college basketball season, and also at the tail end of the college admissions process, I have been thinking about the scholar athlete ideal and wondering if it is a myth on the college level. There seems to be, at least in some sports, a disconnect between the two. I have been reading with interest various articles about college athletes and thinking about the messages sent to our students by the current “system.” For example, basketball players who have no interest in college are enrolling only until they turn 19 and become eligible for the professional draft; essentially these players need a “way station” until they are old enough to turn pro. Is this the scholar athlete model we talk to our high school students about? This flies in the face of everything we teach our students about exercising the physical muscles along with the intellectual muscles and glorying in the life of the mind and the body.

We talk to our high school students about the importance of the transcript, of pushing the curriculum as far as they can, and of finding an intellectual passion. At the same time, our students may be playing one, two or even three varsity sports. We certainly praise the scholar athlete ideal, and at a certain level athletics are a “hook” for college and can help in the admissions process. We like to think that this is only the case if the student has demonstrated through strength of transcript that he or she can do the level of work demanded by the college. This is the expectation, and it is hard not to feel that it is being undermined by the one-year freshman “scholar-athlete” who can’t wait to turn pro the following year.

Many people feel that universities should de-emphasize athletics. And according to Joe Nocera, Op Ed columnist for The New York Times, “others have said that schools should stop accepting athletes, no matter how talented, who lack the skills to do college-level work. Recently, Bob Costas, the estimable NBC sportscaster, devoted two hours of airtime to the state of college sports. A half-dozen times, he asked whether it was right for schools to enroll athletes who couldn’t handle the academic requirements of college.”

I know the value of how winning teams can foster school spirit and student morale, but equally, so can a winning Challenge Team who can answer all the hard math and history questions, or an actor who can inhabit a character with depth and feeling, or a musician or an artist who is accomplished in his or her field. Don’t misunderstand me, I am all in favor of athletics and one hundred percent support our teams and the players, but I would like more honesty on the part of colleges and for real college scholar athletes to be better role models for our students.

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2 Responses to Scholar Athlete, Honestly?

  1. Steve Monroe says:

    Janet, I think the concept of a “scholar-athlete,” at least in most minds, is that of a very good athlete who is also a very good student, if not outstanding student, and not an athlete who merely gets by academically and goes on to college to play a sport. The guy who goes to college and waits until he is 19 to go pro and abandons academics is not a “scholar.” The best example of a true scholar-athlete is former Senator Bill Bradley (Princeton graduate, Rhodes Scholar and NBA great).

  2. tconverse says:

    Your entry really hit a note with me as we are currently grappling with this concept in our home. My son (a competitive soccer player who calls himself a “student-athlete”, not scholar) goes to a highly academic school (Harvard Westlake) which is also a top sports school. I commend the school for being able to keep a balance between both, not an easy thing to do I am sure. We are hopeful that down the road he will be accepted to a college that is both — D1 soccer and top academics, or we question the sacrifice made for the pursuit of both.

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