Rethinking the Student-Athlete

There is a disconnect in our culture between things that are ostensibly work and things that are fun.

In the realm of academia, this is strictly codified. Some things you can get credit for, and some are considered “extracurricular.” This distinction is, of course, totally arbitrary, and based on what a board of very serious people very seriously consider a very serious and worthy academic pursuit.

There wasn’t always a time when you could major in Modern Dance, for example.

There is a great tension about college athletes and the huge amount of attention some of them garner, and the attendant ethical problems that come when you have student-athletes who might not be attending college as a student if not for the athletics. This sensitivity is so apparent that the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s major advertising campaign (that’s been going on for years now) is basically a defensive cringe: “Hey, we aren’t all dumb jocks we do other things guys!”

On the other side, there are the very convincing arguments that athletes in the biggest sports programs are being totally exploited, that they generate millions of dollars for their institutions and conferences and that they should be paid for their talents.

I have a proposal that I think could make college athletics a little bit better, by making things a lot more honest. And it would all be in keeping with the academic standards these colleges and universities hold dear.

I would like to propose a newly accreditted degree: Bachelor of Athletic Arts. Let me explain.

Why couldn’t a stellar basketball player, one of the top players in the world at his age, decide to major in Basketball? Why shouldn’t he get credit for daily three-hour practices, have a class schedule built around all of the travel he’ll be doing to play games around the country, and take core classes on the History of Basketball, the Footwork of Michael Jordan, or the Zone Defense (taught by James Arthur Boeheim, of course)?

The most obvious reason on the surface is that we don’t think of athletic performance as the artform that it is, maybe the most celebrated in the world (admit it). Or do we?

My sister majored in Modern Dance. She has a degree in Modern Dance. “But Zach,” you might say. “Modern Dance has ‘choreography’ and ‘art’ to it.”

I was a Film-Drama major in college. Film is a big business. There are hundreds of thousands of Los Angelans making real money telling stories on a two-dimensional screen. And then there are the folks like me, who aren’t part of Hollywood, but work in small video production houses in every town and city in the country, making commercials and web videos for clients. Then there are my friends who majored in Cello and Trumpet.

We’re all doing okay, even if none of us are directing $100 million feature films or playing in the New York Philharmonic (yet).

My point is that our college years were spent pursuing exactly what we were interested in, and because of this, college was a very interesting and valuable experience in our lives, and led, at least indirectly, to the careers we are working in today.

If you’re a 17-year-old with interest, talent, and promise in filmmaking, there are options for you. If you’re into Surface Pattern Design, you can get a Masters in that. But if you are the greatest basketball player ever to come out of the state of Missouri whose lifelong dream is to play in the NBA, you can pick a major that has nothing to do with your chosen career, doesn’t take into account that you are doubly as busy as every other student, and oh yeah, then there’s a 12-inch book of special rules for you, about who’s allowed to buy you lunch or talk to you or tweet at you.

This one time when I was a sophomore, Steven Spielberg contacted me about directing a film he was producing, but then Turner Classic Movies found out about the call and I was suspended from all filmmaking activities for two years and it was a big mess. What really sucked was that I had to remain in good academic standing with my Pre-Dental degree, but you know, I was on scholarship for Film, so…

Think about that for a second… “All I want to do is play basketball.” “Too bad. You have to do this other crap.” Imagine if someone said that to your chemistry-wiz daughter, or to your piano virtuoso brother. What a distraction. What a waste of their time and money.

“Okay Zach, every Division I player thinks he’s going to make an NBA squad, but only a handful of them do. What about the others?”

Like Film, Basketball is big business. Just because you don’t care about or respect a certain industry doesn’t mean the market hasn’t carved out a giant space for it. A lot of former college players make very decent livings in other leagues around the world. They can go into coaching, physical education, the myriad of businesses related to sports, or maybe they start their own businesses not directly related to basketball. Or they go on like most of today’s graduates and pursue further education in another field altogether.

In addition to directing and editing videos, in the last few years I’ve suddenly found myself designing and developing web applications, and getting paid good money for it. You may not think this is related to film, but everything I’ve done has jumped off of something else. Welcome to the new economy. You do lots of things now.

Playing basketball on the Division I stage involves a level of work ethic and talent that few can claim. If you were reading a resumĂ© which contained these two items, which would impress you more: Four years of starting for the Kentucky Wildcats or a Bachelor’s in Child and Family Studies? Which would convey more confidence and drive?

So let’s quit this dumb charade. Michael Carter-Williams came to Syracuse University to play basketball, and to showcase his talents for the NBA. His options come season-end are to leave and (possibly) make millions while focusing solely on his passion, or to take the bus from South Campus to Technical Writing 205 in the snow. Now, MCW’s situation is different from a lot of guys who opt to leave early these days, as he will likely be a lottery pick, but have you ever heard of an easier decision in your life?

So what if the choice were different? What if he were given the option of spending another year focusing 100% of his energy on basketball, moving further along in the work he’s been doing with his coaches that has yielded such great results, becoming (probably) an even more certain lottery pick next year (and meanwhile have another shot at the NCAA title, because you know, gamers wanna win)? I’m not saying he would take it, and I’m not going to speculate on whether or not that would be a good idea for him, but in this case he certainly has options.

In a world with a Basketball major, everyone wins. Great players get to go to school without stupid pretenses and inefficient uses of their time (if that applies, of course… some people dual-major). Coaches officially become the Professors of the game that they always have been. Fans might get to watch a few guys play for a few more years. And some of those guys who may have gotten lost in the draft shuffle will benefit from that extra time in a strong program competing with the best amateur players on earth. Overall, the world of college basketball would be a more honest place.

Eventually, Basketball could be a major every bit as respectable as Film or Comparative Literature (my fiancĂ©’s major… she’s a lawyer now).

Think about it.

I’ve been thinking about this idea for about ten years now and finally wrote something half-coherent about it, thanks to some pressure from Sean Keeley at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician.

posted Friday, July 20, 2012