Are Big-Money College Sports Healthy? Or a Bubble Ready to Burst within Higher Education Itself?

Published on 26 June 2012 by in College Sports, Speaking Engagements


I leave today for public discussions this week on sports and education. These issues have exploded for me as a sideline since my capsule history of NCAA sports appeared last fall in the October issue of The Atlantic.

Tomorrow morning, in Dallas, I will appear at the national convention for all the college athletic directors in the United States. Here, on page 41 of a voluminous 58-page agenda, the panel features three respected sports leaders.

My role will be to explain and advocate the 3-point reform agenda I first presented in a blog this month. I am nervous in anticipation of controversy, as I will warn that the crucial reforms of transparency and balance are doomed until colleges recognize basic rights for their athletes. Moreover, I plan to argue that the vast majority of schools have blindfolded themselves unnecessarily, and corrupted their core educational mission, by tolerating national rules that impose “amateurism” on athletes to enrich only a hundred or so of the 1,200 NCAA schools among the nation’s 4,000+ colleges overall.

The next day, Thursday June 28, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I join what should be a fiery panel, entitled, “College Sports at a Crossroads: Entertainment or Education?” Vice President Wallace Renfro will represent the NCAA. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and I will renew our urgent criticism. Our fellow panelist Craig Robinson, the head coach for men’s basketball at Oregon State University, is better known nationally as the older brother of First Lady Michelle Obama. This conversation could go in a hundred directions. Most of them will be new to audiences, and we hope to find some clarity.

On Friday, from 5:30 to 6:30pm at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, I will be in one-on-one public conversations with actress Anna Deavere Smith about sports as the window to possibly a larger crisis in higher education. Anna is a treasure of innovation for American theater and film. She is best known for her own one-woman plays in which she inhabits a panoply of real-life characters.

I met Anna about twenty years ago, when she was playing Anthea Burton in the Tom Hanks-Jonathan Demme film about AIDS, Philadelphia. She is from Baltimore, where I have lived the past 26 years. Beyond her stage talent, I admire Anna for her creative spirit of free inquiry into crucial dramas and issues in American life. She sees college sports in the larger framework of an impending crisis for higher education. I think she’s right. We’ll see how the illustrious and assertive Aspen audience responds.

Hidden away, largely out of public view, the vast majority of U.S. colleges still do emphasize classroom teaching within a student-centered governance and curriculum. These are the nation’s fast-growing community or “junior” colleges. Last week in Denver, I spoke to 400 students from their Phi Theta Kappa honors society. They were an inspirational group.

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