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By Barney Forsythe
President, Westminister College (Mo.)
The worlds of academics and athletics have a mingled, controversial relationship. This clash is seen most prominently in NCAA Division I sports, particularly football and men’s basketball, where athletics is a big business. On the other hand, NCAA Division III programs strike a balance between academics and athletics.
Division III views team sports as an opportunity to develop skills in teamwork, determination and personal discipline. However, there is a sea change occurring in America’s youth sports culture that threatens to undermine this approach to athletics. As the popularity of privately sponsored teams in junior high and high school settings rises, we must examine the effects this divide has on our youth and families.
The United States is the only nation that has historically nurtured its athletes in school settings. Many Olympic and professional athletes depend on this support to reach their goals. Athletics participation, when properly integrated with academic pursuits, helps strengthen positive personal traits like teamwork, self-discipline, sportsmanship, leadership and perseverance. Many people, no doubt, reflect fondly on their participation in sports as formative in their personal development.
Indeed, for a select few, that participation has paved the way for a successful career and led to enviable opportunities in business and media, as well as sizable salaries. Practically speaking, the regular exercise regimens and attention to personal health encouraged, or required, in the sporting world impact people in a very real way on a daily basis. The benefits of athletics can be plentiful when placed in the context of a well-rounded and fulfilling life.
However, this context is becoming overshadowed by the commodity of sports and the mentality that perpetuates revenue over respect. Club teams, showcase tournaments and high-intensity camps increasingly dominate the current athletics environment for young athletes. In many cases, these more elite, nonscholastic teams instruct members to cease their involvement with traditional school teams.
Too often, students are lured to these private programs with the promise of exposure to top college and university coaches who could possibly offer lucrative athletics scholarships. The disconnection here is evident. Young athletes begin to think of athletics success as a means to an economic end rather than a pursuit of higher education. The time and energy invested in the practices, games and travel can drastically deter students from focusing on their academic studies. In addition, year-round competition and athletics specialization can lead to injuries and burnout for these athletes.
The high financial costs of these private teams might be even more concerning. The youth sports culture is rapidly becoming a pay-to-play industry. Families are investing enormous sums of money so their children can gain a possible advantage in the college admissions process. The resources that could be used to support academic success are instead driving extracurricular activities in a risky venture to catch a recruiter’s eye. While club teams that promote positive qualities and develop talent do exist, many others are trying to fill rosters to raise profits. Clubs might tempt families with the possibility of recognition, but the internal goal is building revenue. As a result, youth sports are becoming professionalized at a cost to families, students and academics.
We must not underestimate the role that universities play, sometimes unknowingly, in encouraging this switch in values. Through glorifying the success of athletes at the university and professional levels, we walk a fine line of devaluing the pursuit of more academic goals. According to the NCAA, the estimated probability of an athlete competing in athletics beyond high school at an NCAA Division I, II or III institution is somewhere between 3 percent and 11 percent, depending on the sport. The probability of receiving a scholarship to compete in a Division I program is even more remote. The chance of a high school athlete competing at a professional level is less than 1 percent. While the pursuit of those dreams is worthy, what do you say to a young athlete who is not destined to be in that 1 percent? The emotional and financial fallout can be devastating, due to such intense pressure for these young athletes to perform.
Most Division III programs attempt to find a balance that emphasizes successful completion of coursework, spirit, character and community. Athletics participation is held in an appropriate relationship to academics. Athletes play for love of the game, not as a means to an economic or ego-driven end. Scholarships are based upon academic and personal merit, rather than on a recruiter’s brief glimpse. Aren’t the hopes and successes of our youth greater than the events that occur on a playing field?
As institutions of higher learning and as a society in general, we need to react to the shift taking place in youth sports. Healthy competition is being replaced by big business. Pressure for athletics specialization, accompanied by the lure of financial incentives, puts incredible pressure on students. By refocusing our attention on the whole student, we can begin to adjust our values to emphasize those qualities that truly benefit our youth and the promise of their potential.
Barney Forsythe is the president of Westminster College (Mo.). Forsythe is slated for appointment to the Division III Presidents Council and is a current member of the Division III Recruiting Working Group. This editorial first appeared on Nov. 9 in the Huffington Post.