News Opinion

Examining coexistence of sports and academics

I’m a NARP, a non-athletic regular person.  It’s not something that I thought would really be considered as a defining characteristic in college. After all, though our majors may vary across diverse fields, we are here in a common pursuit of higher education.  However, I have realized that Wheaton, like many other small colleges, is plagued by the supremacy of athletics in relation to the academic sphere. Currently, our college community dangerously teeters on the boundary between supporting student-athletes and athlete-students.

Nearly one-quarter of Wheaton students play a varsity sport on campus. With 19 programs, this statistic is not surprising, nor alarming, as there are only between 1600 to 1700 students to fill all of the positions on the teams. What is alarming is the emphasis that Wheaton places on its Division III athletics. On the “About Wheaton” page of the website, it states that, “Wheaton’s reputation is directly connected to our pioneering history and dedicated leadership. The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) ranks Wheaton’s athletic program among the top 20 percent in the country.”  To most who read this, it is clear to see that those in charge of promoting Wheaton believe that its name is tied to the success of its athletics.

But when did Division III sports surpass their original purpose of being leisure time activities and assume this role of recruiting future students?  When did our society deem it appropriate to say, “I’m going to such and such college to play ___” as opposed to “I’m going to study ___”?  When did it become acceptable for full-time students to miss class or be unable to utilize academic resources (such as tutors or office hours) because of practices or games?

Our culture of idolization and instant gratification has greatly led to this focus on sports even at the smallest of our nation’s colleges. With the rise of networks solely dedicated to sports coverage, numerous athletes have become household names. These “pros” sign multi-million dollar contracts with teams, along with endorsement deals for products. Championship games have millions of Americans watching, and highlight reels give a condensed, social-media friendly forum for athletic excellence. Local newspapers dedicate an entire section to reporting professional, collegiate, and high school sports. Children younger than ten (and their parents) spend their weekends driving across states to play in sports tournaments, many in the hopes of reaching the collegiate level of athletics.

As a society, we are sending a message to our youth that excellence in sports is a guaranteed path to a favorable personal repute and overall success. Praise flows freely in the realm of athletics to the top achievers; their statistics are published on a per-game basis; the home community takes pride in the accomplishments of this outstanding performance. Yet we tend to obscure the achievements of scholars into the back-page printing of honor rolls and scholarship recipients. Are not these statistics also the results of hours of hard work and mental preparation?

We worry as a nation if our Olympic medal count slips with regard to other nations. However, we are not nearly as concerned as we should be that our 15-year-olds were not ranked in the top twenty countries in the world for reading, science, and math.  So very few of us will ever become professional athletes, but most of us will need to have a strong educational foundation in order to be competitive in this increasingly connected global market.

At institutions of higher learning, this proliferating attention on athletics needs to be contained before it completely contaminates the academic source for all students on campus. We need to ensure that amazing athletes are not passed on from grade to grade and enter, as was seen at UNC at Chapel Hill, with merely elementary levels of knowledge. College administrations should require that coaches have their practice and game schedules approved by them – as a way to establish classwork and homework as priorities. Students should not jeopardize their future careers due to the pressures of also being athletes.  Because in the end, is it worth it to pay to play another four years of a sport and not get the degree you intended to pursue?