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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

It's Time to Bring Back the True Student-Athlete

September 21, 2003|Gordon Gee | Special to the Washington Post

When Vanderbilt University's chancellor, Gordon Gee, announced that the university would do away with its athletics department and reorganize its sports programs to bring them back into line with other campus activities, skeptics said the move wouldn't lead to real change. The Washington Post's Outlook staff asked Gee to explain the decision.

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NASHVILLE -- I like to win. I also like to sleep at night. But after 23 years leading universities, I find it increasingly difficult to do both.

This has been the most ignominious year in recent memory for college sports. We've seen coaches behaving badly, academic fraud, graft, possibly even murder. Clearly, the system is broken, and fixing it will require more than sideline cheering.

That's why, last week, we at Vanderbilt announced that we would replace our traditional athletic department with a new body that is more connected to the mission of the university and more accountable to the institution's academic leadership. We'll no longer need an athletic director. We're not eliminating varsity sports, mind you, or relinquishing our membership in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. Rather, we're making a clear statement that the "student-athlete" -- a term invented decades ago when college sports was faced with another seemingly endless parade of scandals -- belongs back in the university.

Many athletic departments exist as separate, almost semi-autonomous fiefdoms within universities and there is the feeling that the name on the football jersey is little more than a "franchise" for sports fans. As Bill Bowen and Sarah Levin point out in their new book, "Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values," even at the best colleges and universities in the country, student-athletes are increasingly isolated. They do not participate in the extracurricular activities that are so important for personal growth. They miss out on opportunities to study abroad or have internships. They spend too much time in special athletic facilities that are off-limits to the rest of the student body. And their world can too often be defined by coaches' insatiable demands for practice and workout sessions.

True, this is the cost of staying competitive in college sports, where tens of millions of dollars are at stake. But should it be? Over the years I have gotten to know thousands of student-athletes. They are as different as any group of individuals could be -- with different skills, talents and aspirations. What they have in common, though, is a sense that they missed out on an important part of the college experience by focusing only on sports. They also lose out by being stripped of their responsibilities as citizens of the university when we say that "all will be forgiven" as long as their performance on the field is up to snuff.

This must change. At Vanderbilt, that means ensuring that every student, every athlete, is part of a vibrant academic and social community.

Shifting Vanderbilt's athletics program to our division of student life and university affairs is merely a step -- perhaps bold, perhaps quixotic -- in the much-needed reform of intercollegiate athletics. We took this step mindful that Vanderbilt is in an unusual position. It is a highly selective private university with an athletics program untarnished by scandal; our student-athletes graduate at rates that are among the best in the country; and we have loyal, generous supporters who have blessed us with excellent facilities. We can do things here that other universities can't or won't.

In recent years, there have been a number of well-meaning and forceful efforts to reform college athletics, but they have not gone far enough. It is time for all those who are concerned about the future of our enterprise to get serious about addressing the crisis of credibility we now face. College presidents, working together, should commit themselves to the following reforms:

First, all students who participate in intercollegiate sports should be required to meet the requirements of a core curriculum. The "permanent jockocracy" has for too long made a mockery of academic standards when it comes to athletes. We need to end sham courses, manufactured majors, degree programs that would embarrass a mail-order diploma mill, and the relentless pressure on faculty members to ease student-athletes through their classes.

Second, colleges should make a binding four-year commitment to students on athletic scholarships. One of the dirty secrets of intercollegiate athletics is that such scholarships are renewed year-to-year. A bad season? Injury? Poor relationship with a coach? Your scholarship can be yanked with very little notice. Rather than cynically offering the promise of academic enrichment, colleges should back up the promise so long as a student remains in good academic standing.

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