Point of View

Sport science is a winner for colleges

November 19, 2012 

Although coming a bit late in the game, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp’s pledge to strike a new and groundbreaking balance between athletics and academics at North Carolina’s flagstaff university is a heartening sign to those concerned about redeeming the academic integrity of the institution.

If Thorp’s vision of UNC becoming a national leader in restoring sanity to college athletics – not merely by instituting scandal-proof policies and procedures, but by creating a structure for fully integrating athletics and academics – is actually realized, it will establish a legacy that far outstrips a string of national championships.

Tearing down institutional walls that have long separated the academic and athletic cultures, each with its own expectations, goals and notions of what a university education should be, will be a daunting task. Any adjustment to the way we have always viewed the relationship between athletics and academics is virtually guaranteed to be disruptive, disorienting and likely will encounter fierce resistance from certain sectors of the athletic community. None of this should deter Thorp and his colleagues in their brave quest to integrate athletics and academics.

Here then, are two wholly unsolicited suggestions for those empanelled to draft the new alliance between academics and athletics:

•  For starters, don’t confuse the job of cleaning up scandals and putting proper firewalls in place with the larger goal of integrating athletics with academics. Disciplining academic counselors and “friendly faculty,” or ensuring that coaches, athletes and supporters don’t circumvent NCAA rules – in and of themselves – won’t do much to level the walls separating the athletic and academic cultures. Athletic departments and their activities will remain decoupled from the scholarly life of the university.

•  Second, insist that athletics earn their place on campus, not just by providing entertainment for the masses or ramping up school spirit but by fully participating in the educational mission of the university.

Consider, for example how colleges have traditionally woven art, music, drama and dance – like athletics, kinetic experiences performed for public display and appreciation – into the academic fabric.

Dancers, for example, master the skill of dancing and display their talents in public performances, but they also learn the theory of choreography, the history of dance and the art and science of human movement. It is a model of education that has worked well, producing dancers who not only master performances but who learn the cultural importance of their work, the science that underpins it and the demands that dance makes on their bodies.

But most athletes – those contracted to play on their institution’s biggest stage – leave school knowing little about the scientific and cultural bases of what has consumed them for four years, in spite of the fact that most Division I institutions harbor ample expertise in departments of kinesiology (a k a exercise and sport science), currently one of the fastest-growing disciplines in higher education.

That some of our most respected academic institutions bill themselves as wellsprings of teaching and learning yet fail to bring that solemn mission to bear on a program the regard as “the front porch” for the university isn’t so much an administrative as it is a moral issue.

Shouldn’t the athlete whose physiology is aggressively manipulated by coaches and trainers also be taught basic principles of exercise physiology? Shouldn’t athletes whose body mechanics are objects of endless tinkering by the athletic staff be required to study rudimentary principles of sport biomechanics?

Coaches massage athletes’ psyches, but most are denied a course in sport psychology. Athletes find themselves at the center of intriguing moral pageants and ethical meltdowns but remain unexposed to the burgeoning literature on the philosophy and ethics of sport.

If nothing else, requiring athletes to study basic concepts in kinesiology (not necessarily as a major course of study) will provide them with a larger intellectual context in which to frame their athletic lives and accomplishments. Perhaps it will help them reflect on sport’s deeper meanings and encourage them to discriminate between the types of sport which uplift and those which debase the human spirit. Properly done, this won’t just bridge the academic and athletic cultures, it will make them one.

Shirl James Hoffman is emeritus professor of kinesiology at UNC Greensboro. He is the former executive director of the American Kinesiology Association and author of “Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sport.”

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