While watching our last area women’s team hoop its way through the final days of March Madness last week, I made an offhand remark about wishing I’d been competitive in collegiate athletics.
“Why didn’t you put in the hours?” asked my partner, ever the pragmatist.
Simple, I replied. I was trying to graduate on time.
By virtue of occupation, I hear a lot about what schools, programs and parents have or haven’t done to balance academic preparation and athletic success.
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Each of the stories – from news briefs about signing day for local preps players, to the ongoing tempest at UNC, to the push to unionize football at Northwestern University – is framed as an issue of money, but they are also linked by one key element: time.
According to journalist Malcolm Gladwell, whose 2000 book “The Tipping Point” examined the factors contributing to diverse measures of success, it’s 10,000 hours. That’s the amount of practice time it will take for today’s elementary-age athlete to make it into the pros. It presumably includes time spent in one’s undergraduate years.
But the figure says nothing about the overwhelming majority of student athletes who won’t (or don’t) seek to advance beyond collegiate play; the ones who also split their time between sport and scholarship, knowing that the former is simply a means to an end for earning a degree, and with it, traditional economic advancement. That’s where a proposal from UNC professor Steven King comes in.
4 + 2 is King’s pitch for improving learning conditions for D-I athletes. The website OnfieldInfield.com details a plan that extends the learning time (and money) available to student-athletes.
“One of the coaches for the football team and I are buddies. We were talking at dinner and realized that there was no way the players could be successful in my class,” King told me.
King is the former director of video at The Washington Post. He joined the UNC School of Journalism & Graphic Communication faculty in 2011; and teaches multimedia classes – including several that keep students in the basement, working until the wee hours of the morning.
“These players have a full-time, physically demanding job,” he said of student athletes. “And then we expect them to be successful as a student.”
By decreasing course loads to just six hours during the season, nine in the off-season, and adding two years to allow student athletes to be just that, King and his partner present a proposal that gives students who want their degrees more time to complete them.
Students who want to take more classes can, but those who are burdened by long hours on the road, grueling practices and the supplementary work it takes to compete as a D-I level athlete would be able to scale back a bit.
King says the proposal has been met with both enthusiasm and doubt.
“Some worry that if they have more time, they’ll have more time to get in to trouble,” he said. He also acknowledges that while the proposal is feasible for financially robust programs at schools like UNC, it might not work for other institutions where scholarship funds are tight.
‘A quality education’
Still, it’s an innovation approach, and one I hope gains enough traction for a hearing. Bubba Cunningham, athletic director of UNC, says its one of several ideas currently being discussed on campus.
“I think a lot of people are trying to figure out the best way to deliver a quality education to college athletes, and this is one of them,” he said, calling in from Dallas, where he’d just landed for a meeting of ADs that coincided with the men’s Final Four.
The big opportunity to have the proposal heard could come in January 2015, when the NCAA will meet to discuses proposed rule changes. In the interim, King is focused on gathering momentum behind the idea.
He is to be commended. The ongoing fray about the balance between extra-curricular activities and scholarship is often treated as zero-sum equation rather than a creative problem to be examined and tested with innovative approaches.
Rather than criticism, communities united around schools and teams could offer constructive insights for improvement. Mine? Create an athletic-track degree that will prepare students for careers tangential to their areas of sports specialization. Include the courses we’re not currently teaching in high school and college —negotiating agreements as a lay person, financial literacy, managing your own brand.
If we’re going to keep revenue sports tied to college education, we should give students the opportunity to take an interdisciplinary approach to excel within their wheelhouse so that they emerge with both a degree and an opportunity to carry their talent and passion for sport to the next level.
Undoubtedly, there are a number of ideas out there from people invested in the issue – parents to educators, administrators and even players themselves.
The 4 + 2 proposal demonstrates that there’s more we can do than just comment and criticize and buy our season tickets for next year’s games.
As a community of alumni, faculty, students and fans, we can contribute. Whether it’s through drawing attention to proposals like 4 + 2, or demanding greater accountability from institutions that shape our student athletes, there’s plenty of room for all of us to get in this game.