Elite sport and college education in the US: A dysfunctional marriage?

Photo: MN Photos/Flickr


By B. David Ridpath
At Play the Game 2019 top speakers from elite and college sport in the US will discuss the challenges and future for the relationship between elite sport and college education.

Given that elite sport development and athletic success is paramount in any elite sport system, there is a natural clash in the U.S. with academic primacy given that elite athletes have to meet academic benchmarks to be able to compete. Historically, the athletic goals of winning and revenue generation often win out at the expense of academic integrity. At Play the Game 2019, some of the most knowledgeable researchers and practitioners within the field will examine the current state of educationally based elite athletic development in America and propose solutions as potential templates for improvement.

The US model of college sport
The United States is the only country in the world that has a significant portion of its elite athletic development in many sports grounded in the educational system. American intercollegiate athletics, most specifically at the highest division, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I, is highly commercialized, profitable and immensely popular.

Many head college football and basketball coaches are making close to ten million dollars a year. Paradoxically, and somewhat strange to those not from the United States and despite tremendous revenue for some college programs, college athletes do not get paid a salary beyond an athletic scholarship that pays for school, nor are they able to share in the revenue such as profiting off their own name, image and likeness (NIL).

The promise of a college education is often not delivered in an eligibility driven environment that often replaces actual access to a transformational college education for the college athlete, so competitiveness is not affected. This dysfunctional, yet very popular and profitable marriage has fueled more changes and requests for reform in the past ten years than in the entire 100 plus year history of American college sports.

Is it time for changes?
There is no shortage of issues and calls for reform and change. The athletes are asserting their rights more than ever to share in the revenue; the industry is replete with academic scandals and academic fraud; the public and the government are questioning the amount of spending on college sports when higher education is underfunded; a lucrative black market exists that exploits the athletic utility of the athlete to go to specific schools, and even famous movie stars have gotten involved in the recent Varsity Blues admission scandal which exploited special college admission standards for athletes at academically elite colleges and universities.

Moreover, the focus on the commercialized sports of football and men’s basketball has led to other sports being eliminated on many campuses, which in turn damages the United States on the international sports landscape as American higher education institutions are a primary training ground for Olympic and national team athletes in multiple sports.

At Play the Game 2019, speakers such as professor B. David Ridpath, Ohio University, professor Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College, Karl Benson, former commissioner of 3 NCAA Division I athletic conferences, Carolayne Henry, Associate commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, and Ceal Berry, Deputy athletic director at the University of Colorado will discuss the current state of educationally based sport and elite athlete development in the United States, with a focus on intercollegiate athletics at the NCAA Division I level. The main questions will be what is working and not working in commercialized college sports in the US today and are there potential alternatives to the American model such as looking towards Europe and integrating a local sports club system and other developmental options to reduce the stress on the educational system?

Workers of the Court, Unite!
In a parallel session John Wolohan will discuss the pros and cons of paying college athletes and Alex Wolf-Root will discuss the issue of unionization of college athletes.

Delegates will also hear a presentation from Geoff Parsons about the Jess Varnish case, where the female cyclist lost a case about employment rights against UK cycling and UK Sport. Where athletes push to get rights as employees, sport governing bodies on the other hand perceive their relationship to athletes as more of a service provider supporting talented and dedicated athletes to achieve their best.

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Different aspects of US college sport will be up for debate at Play the Game 2019.

You can see the full programme, the list of speakers and all other information you need about the conference at the conference website.

Play the Game 2019 would not be possible without the generous support from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and a great number of sponsors in Colorado Springs and Denmark. You can see the list of sponsors here.



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