Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why Sports Performance Majors Won't Fix the Gap between Collegiate Academics and Athletics

By Toni-Anne Richards Published January 1, 2017

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The argument over proper compensation for high-performing student-athletes has resurfaced, but less attention has been given to the idea of narrowing the gap between sports and academics for these students through a sports performance major. This article discusses why such a program in its current conceptualized form is not necessary and easy to take advantage of.
By Toni-Anne Richards

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recent New York Times op-ed discussed the need for a sports performance major with a concentration in a specific sport that would connect student-athletes with their school's academic objectives.  However, the program, as it is described, would be too easy for coaches and administration to manipulate to ensure their players stay eligible. The issue at hand is the enormous influx of money in college sports. In April, the N.C.A.A. signed a deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for an eight-year $8.8 billion extension of their March Madness basketball TV contract through 2032. In 40 states, the highest paid public employee is a college coach. This monetary influx only widens the divide between athletics and academics on college campuses as student-athletes, some devoting as many as 60 hours per week to their sport, are either encouraged or forced to choose majors that don't match their career interests but won't interfere with practices. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis from 2014 found that men's basketball and football players on top 25 teams tended to major in fitness-related studies, business administration, communications or sociology. Even then, the graduation rate according to the federal rate for Division 1 football and men's basketball players was around 50% compared to 64% for the general student body.


Most collegiate athletes play with the hope of going professional after graduation, the same as someone who majors in music or theater. The idea of a sports performance major directed by coaches would close the enthusiasm gap between academics and sports while allowing them use the skills they learn to evaluate their own performance. In a sample curriculum developed by Dr. David Pargman, professor emeritus in educational psychology at Florida State University, the major follows two years of basic studies (including anatomy, educational psychology and a specific sport's offensive or defensive strategies) and by graduation, players would have taken courses in public speaking, nutrition, business law and kinesiology. Dr. William D. Coplin, director of the public affairs program at Syracuse University, suggested a 3-credit seminar in conjunction with an "internship" (which is a semester on the team) in which students are required to keep logs of their day-to-day and write self-evaluations on career-building skills. Their skill sets: competitiveness, drive and taking responsibility are particularly applicable to sales and business management, he says.

However, any major of this nature would need heavy oversight to avoid the scandals of academic deceit that have recently plagued universities. Since 2015, 20 colleges have been investigated by the N.C.A.A. for academic fraud, the most infamous of the cases being University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where, for 18 years, student-athletes were encouraged by advisers to take fake "paper classes" in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies to maintain their eligibility. In the 1980s, universities offered courses called "Varsity Basketball" and "Varsity Football" graded mainly on attendance. One University of Georgia class on "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball"-taught by the university's basketball coach- had a multiple choice final exam with questions like "How many points do a 3-point field goal account for?" Any major of this kind would necessitate a greater degree of oversight from a college's administration to ensure that the faculty in charge of most of the program are not team coaches themselves and the curriculum is geared towards deepening their understanding of their sport in an academic setting. Most of the faculty in charge of the major courses should be certified professors with specialty areas including but not limited to exercise science, physical therapy, athletic training or sports medicine. Every two years, the university's academic oversight board should be able to review the curriculum material to ensure that what students learn in these classes actually reflects an acquisition of knowledge or skills (sports officiating, strength training clinicals, sports management, etc.) and not a rehashing of information these athletes already know. The monetary importance of certain collegiate sports like men's basketball or football could make this kind of oversight difficult.

Even when the option of going professional is no longer possible, there are still ways of making a career in sports using majors that are already available at many universities: coaching education, exercise science, nutrition, and kinesiology concentrations are offered at a number of universities with large exercise and sports science major programs.  Actual reform would involve the NCAA revising rules that allow college athlete six years instead of the current five to finish degrees of their choice while still maintaining four years of athletic eligibility. This would give students and their advisers a less compressed timeline to finish their academic work while playing.

Collegiate athletes, particularly those playing football and basketball, are expected to perform at professional levels and still be students. More should be done to make sure their profitability doesn't supersede their status as students in college. A sports performance major would help these students apply their academics to their extracurricular and the profession they would like to enter, but historical precedents show that this approach potentially leads to majoring for eligibility as opposed to learning applicable skills for postgraduate life.