Should 'Sports' be a college major?

Oct 07, 2011

Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins recently wrote, "If we would quit being half-ashamed of college sports and assign them some real value, we might just cure some of their corruptions...In fact, why shouldn't we let kids major in sports? Aspiring athletes should be able to pursue their real interest, as a business and an art."

Do you agree? Chat with Sally Friday at 11 a.m. ET about whether or not college athletes should be able major in sports - their craft - much like music, dance, or film majors do. Ask questions and submit your opinions now!

Related: NCAA colleges should consider offering sports as an academic major

Hi folks. There are lots of questions and comments and sorry in advance I won't get to them all. And I apologize too for any, uh, spelling and grammar mistakes in a chat about academics.

Here's my column on this topic in case you missed it: NCAA colleges should consider offering sports as an academic major

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't the majority of college scholarship athletes still graduate, and don't their degrees in traditional academic disciplines lead to gainful careers that have nothing to do with the sport they played? Would a degree in sports be anywhere near as valuable in the job market for all those athletes who don't go on to play professionally?

Hi there! Your observation is essentially correct, most varsity athletes do graduate, and at higher rates than the average student body, but there are some sports that conspicuously lag, namely men's basketball and football. And unfortunately, a lot of athletes are herded into majors that are fairly bland like General Studies. There's nothing wrong with that, but my feeling is we could do better. A sports-performance major would allow thousands of varsity athletes to get academic credit for the immense work they put in, and to really understand more about what they do, similar to dance or drama majors, and finally to look for more realistic career tracks. In my opinion. 

Sally, I absolutely LOVED your article about making sports an actual major. But don't a lot of athletes do that already, with majors in kinesiology, sports science, sports management, etc? And one other thing: How much money do you think Notre Dame would actually lose if it chose to align its football program with the Big East? I mean, shouldn't the Big East presidents be doing whatever it takes to bring ND into the football fold? It's the one that makes the most sense -- at least to me. Keep up the good work! :-)

There are plenty of courses already in existence, such as the ones you name, but most of them are geared to train future athletic directors, or marketers. Do we really need more of those? What I argue is that varsity sports in and of themselves have intellectual content and value, and athletes should be awarded academic credit for them, and be allowed to build a performance major around them by adding some of the courses we've named. There are things you learn in on-field training and competition you simply don't learn in a sports marketing class. I'm just proposing we pull these things together in a more comprehensible way, that would speak to athletes' real interests and aspirations. And which would perhaps encourage them to stay in school, help them obtain real degrees, and adjust the mindset of college presidents and coaches to where it should be -- instead of on the free shellfish buffet at the Sugar Bowl banquet.

This is a prime example of todays America, and what we have become. Perhaps economics & law would be better suited, managing money and following the rules of society would probably serve them better. What purpose will a degree in zone blitz protection serve after a pro career, with most of the adult life ahead?

It's an outlier idea, obviously. No doubt many people agree with you. But my argument is, why not help athletes find their way intellectually through the subject that they are really most passionate about and devote the most time to? At the moment, varsity athletes see their onfield activities as totally divorced from their academic life.

Let Sports be a college major? What is the economic value of a Sports major? Zero. What is is economic value of a college degree today? Zero. Sure go, ahead.

A cynic! A fatalist! Welcome. Your attitude is shared, unfortunately, by far too many NCAA college presidents, who appear to have flatly given up.

Let's assume that adding sports as a major increases graduation rates for revenue sports athletes (non-revenue athletes are doing fine)...can ESPN really hire every college linebacker or point guard that can't play in the NFL? What other employers will be lining up to hire these kids? You may respond that being an athlete teaches so many skills that employers would value. Okay - but aren't kids with those other skills already being hired? Let's remember that Myron Rolle, Bill Bradley, and others like them are exceptions - not the rule.

Why is professional employment your criteria for a major? How many drama students will find a job in Hollywood or on Broadway as actors? And how many of their skills are valued by other employers? I'd argue that athletes are much more suited to transfer their abilities to other professions than drama or dance majors. Most drama students end up waiting tables out of college and are lucky to ever find paying work. But we consider their training valuable, because they learned a discipline and method of inquiry. Sports is no different to me. Check the webpage for Duke's dance department. They actually boast that some of their students have found work as dancers at Disneyworld.

Hi Sally, I completely agree. If you can major in band or theater why not football or basketball. A question though, given the revenue football and basketball bring in would schools be tempted to give sports majors easier classes?

Well sure, there would be that temptation. You're never going eradicate academic fraud or cheating entirely with any proposal, any more than you can eradicate smoking. It's a vice that won't go away. But it seems we can at least sharpen our mindsets and identify what it is we really want from college athletics, and try to create a change of heart in athletes and administrators so that their incentives are different. Emphasizing the academic content of sport might actually engage the athlete and provide some incentive to study more deeply what he or she most cares about and chooses to devote their life to. Again, competition has real intellectual content -- if only we would emphasize that better. Here's another idea: why shouldn't coaches who make seven figures have to teach a course each semester offered to the general student body? Why is Mike Kryzewski's valuable teaching restricted to a dozen handpicked students? If we insisted that coaches devise genuine coursework with a syllabus and reading, that was offered to rest of the student population, we would feel better about their place at the university. Pat Summitt has a masters in education and is an utterly inspired teacher. And yet most Tennessee students will never have access to her. Now, there are also plenty of clowns coaching varsity athletics who would no doubt administer ludicrous multiple choice tests starting with the question, "Define offsides." But if we asked coaches to be real teachers, it would certainly throw into relief exactly who those frauds are, and make it harder for college presidents to rationalize employing them. 

Do you think that the real problem might be the NFL and NBA's lack of farm-team systems, the way that MLB and the NHL have? If post-high school athletes who aren't college material academically had minor league options for pursuing their sports interests, mightn't that be a win-win situation?

Hi Sally, I am Elwood from Baltimore. I enjoy reading your columns whether I agree or disagree.... :). I am a huge ACC fan, and you may not like this, but I am itching for the league to bring in UConn and Rutgers.....with TCU not joining now, how long do you think it will take for Swofford to extend the invite and will the Big East let Syracuse and Pitt go early now?

You know, I don't. The farm system argument is specious to me -- all colleges are farm systems for professions. Harvard is a farm system for wall street  -- 58 percent of its graduates go into some form of finance. Universities are farm systems for the legal and medical professions, too. And culinary arts, and... you see my point. What on earth is wrong with athletes using college as a steppingstone to a job and earning potential? Not every student uses college that way, but plenty sure do. The farm system argument to me is based in the soft bigotry of low expectations we show towards sports as an endeavor.

The problem with college sports isn't that student-athletes don't have the right major available - please look at the graduation rates and majors of the non-revenue producing athletes in Division 1 -- lots of those kids are doing fine with the regular academic list of majors. The issue is that the universities are making tens of millions of dollars from football and basketball - but the student-athletes whose performances are generating that revenue are left with non-guaranteed scholarships and little else. Boosters, agents, and coaches have responded by providing or turning a blind eye to gifts of cash, cars, and more. So we have a shadow economy in college athletics - where the NCAA trumpets amateurism, while member schools and their coaches cash in multimillion dollar checks, while networks of boosters, agents, and other third parties pay students (relatively) small sums of money to choose the right school or to stay and compete.

This is an accurate description for  men's college football and basketball, but not for the rest of collegiate athletics. It's not true of lacrosse, women's basketball, swimming and diving, track, etc.. You are talking about the revenue producing sports, and you leave out the most crucial point about the shadow economy you describe: it PAYS for all those other sports and activities. Also, that shadow economy creates other enormous benefits for a university. TCU experienced a huge surge in applications after it won the Rose Bowl last year. Also, donor giving skyrockets when a Division I-A football or basketball team has a great year. Look, the commerce around the NCAA isn't going away -- and if it did, students would suffer. The trick is to control and apply the commerce in an honorable, healthy way for universities. Which by the way are touched by all sorts of commercial corruption in other areas. Like, how about schools that accept money for corporations to conduct supposedly independent research? Or college presidents who sit on corporate boards? It's nonsense that revenue college sports are "tainting" our universities. They have some problems and ills, but they are answerable, solve-able.

Why not create an actual minor league for basketball and football, and let college sports be just that--college sports? The best players would go to the minor leagues instead of pretending to care about college, the money would leave the college system, and college sports can go back to being a hobby and outlet performed by students.

Well this is certainly a sensible mainstream suggestion, and it has been around a long time. The trouble is, we seem to have decided as a culture, over the last 150 years, that varsity athletics belongs on campuses, that competition at the very highest levels has something to teach. My only real point is, okay -- then let's really definie what it is that's worth learning and TEACH it. Instead of letting athletics departments flounder as there murky bastardized entities with no real academic goal or oversight. I'm obviously a passionate defender of the athletic scholarship, and I believe there is an invaluable experience for kids who seek to perform in public at the highest levels, and we undervalue and underserve them.


Every time I hear this proposal, I think about Jim Harrick, Jr's course at Georgia from a decade ago, except now it comes with an Oprah soundtrack: "You get an A! You get an A! You get an A!" And that was a course that supposedly had oversight from the academic side of the house. Can we ever hope to make that type of behavior go away?

This is a good question -- and one I asked. The answer is that an academic major has to be approved by a faculty senate and a provost, who make sure the course of study is legit and worthwhile. What you would need to make this happen is a set of professors from different disciplines who got together and proposed a sports major and outlined the core curriculum. A school could try to slip a Jim Harrick Jr course in there, but I don't any worthwhile faculty senate would allow it. That said, there are certainly lots of micky mouse courses at our fine universities. I took a few of them myself.

At first I was completely opposed to "sports" as a major; but, when you put it in the context with dance and theatre majors, I like it. Plus, then you could really tailor classes around the major - like an accounting class might be useful, teching classes could be useful if you ever want to coach...I like it.

Thank you. I like it too. Mainly what I like best about it is the shift in perception it could create.

"Here's another idea: why shouldn't coaches who make seven figures have to teach a course each semester offered to the general student body?" That's called gym class. Maybe we shouldn't offer coaches seven figures; sports like football and men's basketball are overvalued on many college campuses already.

I disagree that varsity coaches teach gym. The bad ones do, maybe. But many of them have masters degrees, and if you spend any time at all around a good coach, you discover that what they really teach are building block courses in leadership and organization. Now, I'm not making them out to be a bunch of Cornel Wests. But they do teach many things that are difficult to explain, and to learn. As for their salaries, hey, that's the free market. There are some quite lively bidding wars for prominent professors, too.

Doesn't the issue of a Sports major chiefly apply to male athletes who plan to turn professional in hopes of making tons of money? Female athletes, on the other hand, seem to be more academically inclined, and very few who turn pro after college make much money playing their sport, it seems. BTW, do you know what Pat Summitt's views are on this issue?

There are literally thousands of NCAA athletes who don't have the aspiration or the avenue to go pro, or to become Olympians. I got a very nice note from Mariah Burton Nelson, who played basketball at Stanford back in the 1970s before there was a WNBA, who said she wished she'd had such a major. There are scores of kids out there who will devote their lives, in some form or fashion, to the sports industry though they may only get to do so as on-field performers for a brief window. The same is true of dance majors, no?  Most of them become teachers and open dance studios. How many of them actually dance on stage for pay? Yet we consider their method and discipline valuable for a lifetime. So why isn't the same true for athletes?

That's only a problem if you majored in Typing in college : - )

I never learned to type. I'm a hunt-and-pecker.

That is because it is not an ACADEMIC pursuit.

I guarantee you that you would struggle to master an NCAA Division I-A football playbook, from an intellectual standpoint. I promise you, the spatial relationships, varying factors, the rapid reads and insights required by football players take a special brand of intelligence.

Over time we have seen a progression and aggrandizement of college sports, while simultaneously we witness a decline in the general health of Americans. Childhood obesity is leading to more and more physically dysfunctional adults. It's a major brewing health issue under our noses, and I believe part of the reason why our nation is less productive. We are physically unfit to handle the demands of life! Would graduates from a "sports" major be able to work in our communities to help inspire healthier lifestyles through exercise and improved diet? No doubt that athletes put in a lot of work, but how can this be transferred into improved conditions for our nation?

Now this is an interesting point. Thank you for writing!

But that doesnt' justify a college degree for that 'expertise.' There are lots of valuable specializations that don't justify a college degree (plumbing, for example). If a kid wants to devote his life to football, OK--but I'm not giving him a college degree for it. If he wants a college degree, he'll have to meet the same mimimal standards everyone else has to meet. This is just a way to give football stars more free rides.

Of course they should have to meet the same standards every other student does -- I'm not suggesting otherwise. A major doesn't relieve you of meeting the basic undergraduate requirements in english, science, western civ., etc. A major is just an advanced course of study that lets you go deeper into a chosen subject. All I'm suggesting is giving kids credit -- say three or four credits a semester -- for the very arduous work and learning they do in their chosen sports, and build a rigorous curriculum around it that teaches the cultural, historical, ethical, philosophical theory and issues of sport.

Sports Marketing is already a major all it's own. Are there courses in Sports Journalism? Probably! There are also Graduate Degrees in Sports Management too. I went to a Sports Marketing Career Exhibition 2 years ago. It was fantastic! Anyone who believes that the value of Sports Degree is 0 should look at China Town near the now Verizon Center and see the effect of Sports in this town!

All of these things are available. So why not build something deeper and more interesting around them? One course of study that would fascinating is the neuroscience of sports. Researchers are beginning to do some fascinating work in understanding how sports performance works, and why it breaks down -- why do we choke? See a wonderful story called The Tight Collar by a writer named David Dobbs, who interviewed a researcher at the University of Chicago doing some really interesting work on the mechanisms of sport performance.

Maybe those shouldn't be college degrees either? At least not at general universities. Some of the greatest dancers start training when they're very young, and follow vocational training or go to specialized art schools. Same with some of the great actors. Of course Duke dancers will end up at Disney when they're competing with people who trained at Juilliard for more prime spots. Is it possible that you're looking at this backwards?

In other words, you would make acting, dance, music, and sports all strictly vocational training? So then what about engineers? Architects? Doctors?...And you'd also have to do away with Cornell's culinary arts and hotel program. Look, schools design majors based in part on student demand and appeal.

He should get a degree in Education, not basketball

Many college coaches did get degrees in education -- many of them masters degrees. They learned basketball on their own time, for no credit, doing twice the work of their peers.

Do you what Pat Summitt's views are on this issue?

Yes! She read it last night, and said she agreed. But you're talking about someone who has always taught basketball as more than a game. She teaches it as an ethic. You're also talking about someone who got a masters in education.

Can we just admit there are two worlds here that need to be treated differently? Any sport that brings in money for all the others will always play by a different set of rules than Men's Tennis or Women Gymnastics. They don't have the same value to the university (or really the majority of sports fans).

Trouble is, they don't exist in two separate worlds. They share the same buildings and the same offices, and one pays for all the rest. We can't extricate them  -- but we can and should try to extricate some education from them, surely?

I think you're just going to hurt your arguement with these claims. We all know players, we all went to school. We've seen games, playbooks, etc. It IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE, lol. It's a game; requiring skill, such. But it is not as complex mathematically or cerebrally. It requires raw physical strength and determination. Fine qualities, but not academic qualities.

Totally disagree with you. So does Howard Gardner, who says athletes and surgeons share the same kinesthetic intelligence. And so increasingly do many neuroscientists. Francis Crick was fascinated by athletic intelligence at the end of his life.

I've always thought schools should be required to give 8-year scholarships and that athletes should not have to take classes during their sports' seasons, because it's crazy to pretend that playing a college sport is not a full-time job. But I like your idea better.

Thanks for the comment! I'm not sure I agree about not gong to classes, but you are right about the time commitment.

Maybe that's what was in the laptop Cam Newton stole at UF...he just wanted some extra credit.


We already are! You're just condoning making it MUCH easier for them to get college degrees. We do not need further dumbing-down of our scholastic opportunities, we need higher standards!

I can think of a lot of things dumbing down our colleges ahead of athletes. Starting with reality TV stars.

The Western intellectual tradition, dating back to the Greek Academies, does not include sports (or agriculture for that matter). I don't see this as an improvement.

Nonsense. Sport had a huge role in Greek education, also in Greek nationalism, and religion. Contest was considered a critical coming of age ritual. "The test of any man lies in action." That's Pindar. Also, "Learn what you are and be such."

Hi Sally, As a longtime follower of college football, I was struck by how this seems like such a natural solution with regards to reforming college athletics and the NCAA. I know it would take a lot of detail- work on the part of the NCAA and individual schools but I'm having a hard time seeing the downside to your proposal. Have you heard any logical arguments against moving in this direction? Has this been proposed before?

Back in 2004 the Washington Post did a good story about a number of schools that awarded limited academic credit for varsity participation. But it was considered scandalous behavior and Myles Brand said, "That's terrible, we can't have that."  I know that a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts named Jeff Gerson would like to see a sports major. And I know Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News has argued in favor of it before.

Those atheletes who truely are as skilling as surgeons can go to medical school and get the degrees and certifications they're qualified for. But they earn a degree just like all their peers. Your circular logic (athelets are as smart as other college students so we should just give them degrees because we said so) is rediculous. If you make the grade, you get the degree. That is how it is today and there's no reason to change it. You want to be a doctor, apply like all the other biology majors, don't expect an honorary doctor's degree because Crick was fascinated with movement.

That's not the argument at all -- I'm not saying give athletes a degree for crossing the goal line. I'm saying lets design courses that emphasize the the theory, discipline, and intellectual underpinnings of sport, because it's a valuable method of inquiry and we could all learn a lot more from it. I'm suggesting you could design a very rigorous major.

Okay folks! Sorry for all of those I never got to. Enjoyed the back and forth. Now I have to go back to talking to all those empty headed athletes I deal with all day.

In This Chat
Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, rejoined the newspaper as a full-time columnist in summer 2000. She previously worked for the newspaper from 1983 to1989. Before rejoining The Post, Jenkins was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Jenkins is the author of "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation" and and co-author of "The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy" (co-written with historian John Stauffer), "It's Not About the Bike" (co-written with cyclist Lance Armstrong); "Reach for the Summit" and "Raise the Roof" (both co-written with women's basketball coach Pat Summit); and "A Coach's Life" (co-written with college basketball coach Dean Smith). Jenkins is a graduate of Stanford University. She is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and lives in New York City.
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