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Column: Win-win for academics and athletics

Big-time college athletic budgets are massive. Faculty budgets, on the other hand, are a joke, with 76 percent of America's faculty non-tenure-track instructors who make an average of $2,700 per class.

For years, the line of argument from flabby nerds such as myself has been: slash athletics and reallocate the cash into the hallowed halls! Sure, go whine about Herodotus to the CEO of the new college football playoff series. I'm sure he and the provost will share a nice laugh over lobsters stuffed with gold in the VIP skybox.

The kill-sports argument is never going to be taken seriously. Nor should it be. Because in fact college athletics are worthwhile, and worth saving. I have spent years teaching student-athletes on both marquee and regular teams — football and basketball, but also tennis, volleyball and fencing — and, with the exception of one famous football player who had self-professed "senioritis" and a near-constant concussion, these students have been some of my best.

I'm not alone — just about every professor I know has had more positive experiences with student-athletes than issues. I also understand that athletic scholarships — bankrolled, I am aware, by marquee programs — mean for many kids the difference between a college education and a lifetime of poverty.

And as a former competitive gymnast who left middle and high school early each day to train for five hours, I know firsthand the lifelong benefits of sports. I know discipline: If at first you can't do something, you practice it thousands of times until you can. I have grit and determination from completing scores of workouts on bleeding hands and with taped ankles.

And yet, I find it hard to believe these benefits are also dependent upon turning a blind eye to the total exclusion, in some cases, of even remedial academics — upon, in short, completely ignoring the humanity of these young people. How about this: If you find out a young man at your college doesn't know how to read, you don't punish the bearer of this information — you teach him to read. It's not that hard.

It seems to me that what big-time athletics programs need are scores of dedicated literacy specialists at the ready — if only there were a trained, enthusiastic labor force of them desperate for work. Oh wait, there is.

So here's my modest proposal: Why not create entire new academic departments, dedicated to tutoring and teaching student-athletes, funded by the athletics programs — but, obviously, not run by them (hello, fake classes). Call the program, I dunno, Postdocs for Jocks.

To give each department a middling chance at legitimacy, they could be administered with outside reviewers, maybe from some incorruptible organization like the National Endowment for the Humanities (with positions paid for, collectively and no strings attached, by the schools). To keep everyone honest, each university's outside reviewer should come from that school's greatest arch-rival — UNC's could come from Duke! Ohio State's from Michigan! Stanford's from Cal! Oh, the rom-com screenplay possibilities alone.

Seriously, though: Many of these students are in desperate need of help, there are people desperate to give it, and for once the money could be wrangled. (UNC's 2012 athletics revenue was about $82 million; hiring and housing four new well-paid academic staff would cost about $300,000.) It would help beleaguered athletics programs look better, it would serve the underserved students they are currently exploiting — and it would actually offer a real response to the Ph.D. employment crisis.

These would be solid, full-time, "alternative academic" (or "alt-ac") staff jobs, where literature and composition instructors could put those years of literacy pedagogy to use whilst avoiding the pedantry, back-stabbing and endless research obligations of the tenure track.

Look, I realize this is a pipe dream. No big-time athletic department is ready to embrace and confront its academic shortcomings, and nobody is more aware than I that too many academics turn their noses up at anything less than that vaunted tenure-track professorship.

But if you don't want to teach football players about Sisyphus all day, that's your problem — I'd be delighted to do it, and I bet a lot of other Ph.D.s would be, too. Using a rather negligible amount of a powerhouse school's sports budget to fund a remedial-academics department would help the students, help the programs, and offer a rewarding career option to those either fed up with or shut out of the traditional academy. It's a win-win. So maybe it's time for academics to stop clawing at the crumbling ivory tower while lamenting the gleaming football stadium next door — and just go enter the stadium.

Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate, has been an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

© 2014 Slate

Column: Win-win for academics and athletics 01/30/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 2:37pm]

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