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College Athletics: Necessary, Not Just Nice to Have

College and university athletics suffer the occasional black eye, admits the provost at Oklahoma State University, who has viewed this controversial area from several perspectives. Here, he presents the case that college athletics play a key—perhaps even necessary—role in a well-rounded higher education experience.

By Robert J. Sternberg

Never a varsity or even junior varsity athlete, I have no vested interest whatsoever in athletics. In the tradition of Groucho Marx, I would have refused to be a member of any serious team that would have been willing to include me as part of it. That said, I've come to view college athletics as playing an important, perhaps even necessary, role in a well-rounded college education.

True, there are few things that college and university faculty and business officers complain about more than college athletics (though parking may be one). As a faculty member, I was at the front of that grievance line. I saw all the downsides: the time athletes take away from academics, a sense of entitlement on the part of some athletes, the cost of constructing and maintaining facilities, and the wonderment about what athletics had to do with college education anyway. With budget shortfalls and declining revenues, faculty members and others may especially resent the resources they see as going into college athletics. (Read also Mark Emmert's Love of the Game in the September issue of Business Officer to find out about the key challenges facing intercollegiate athletics today.)

As an administrator—first as a dean at Tufts University, a Division III school, and now as provost at Oklahoma State University (OSU), a Division I school—I have had an opportunity to view college athletics from a more positive angle. I've concluded that college athletics provide great value on the field and off.

Following are a baker's dozen reasons why, along with some cautionary advice.

The Pluses of Competitive Sports

Consider these positives for supporting college athletics on your campus:

1. Leadership development. College stakeholders have different views of the ultimate goal of higher education. My opinion is that a college education produces tomorrow's leaders-people who make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the world. Ideally, college graduates will become the people who will make the world a better place. For me, this ought to be the purpose of college education in any institution, but it is especially true in a land-grant institution such as Oklahoma State, where the expectation is that the university will give back to the state and its people. 

We might then ask, "What leadership characteristics are important for an undergraduate education to develop?" These might include traits and skills such as strategic and tactical planning, persistence, sensible risk-taking, resilience, self-discipline, time management, a sense of fairness, teamwork, an understanding of one's adversaries, and sportsmanship (being both a good winner and a good loser). If we now consider which characteristics competitive athletics help develop, the lists would track pretty well. That is, done right, participation in competitive athletics is leadership development.

Then, too, coaches, if properly trained, can be tremendous leadership mentors. Carmen Cozza, the head football coach at Yale for more than 30 years, was a role model to generations of college students. Our athletic director and former golf coach at Oklahoma State, Mike Holder, sets a similar example for a contemporary generation of students at OSU. Students can learn as many lessons about leadership and life from a great coach as they can from any great professor.

 Obviously, such development can be done badly, as when a team adopts an attitude, say, of winning at any cost. But all aspects of college education run the risk of being done badly. Professors, for example, may require students to memorize content without first ascertaining whether everyone understands the material they are memorizing. On the other hand, students can allow themselves to become so distracted with technology gadgets and tools that homework and learning are neglected.

Many employers I have talked with have said they prefer to hire college graduates who have participated in competitive sports. Hiring organizations recognize, even if implicitly, that college athletes have developed leadership skills in which other students did not have or take the opportunity to engage. Of course, participation in competitive athletics is not the only way to develop leadership skills. For example, I teach an undergraduate course on the psychology of leadership; among my goals for the course is the development of leadership skills. Nonetheless, competitive athletics can complement other aspects of college life in developing valuable skills as well as attitudes of leadership.

2. Spirit. During more than four decades in university teaching, I have been on campuses that are alive with enthusiasm and vibrancy and on others that have appeared to be spiritually dead. School spirit can come from many sources, but college athletics is near the top of the list.

I never imagined the excitement and enthusiasm that college teams could generate until I arrived at Oklahoma State. Come game day, thousands of people dress up in orange and crowd into the athletic stadium to cheer their team on. The spirit carries over to nongame days as well. Some might feel that such an attitude is hardly becoming of an institution dedicated to developing the life of the mind; but I would take the excitement and passion of the schools with spirit any day. It makes life on the campus much more fun and boosts morale and a feeling of identification with the institution. It also provides a sense of positive competitive spirit that can unify diverse stakeholders who otherwise may have rather different or conflicting agendas.

3. Pride and loyalty. When I first came to Oklahoma State, merely to give a university colloquium, I quickly observed the enormous pride and loyalty of its stakeholders toward the institution. In my previous institutions, I'd never encountered anything quite like it. While other activities can inspire institutional connection, the pride in the OSU teams that I encountered truly touched me, even as a visitor on a short speaking engagement. It is just nicer and more energizing to work or study in an institution where people feel a connection that competitive athletics can instill.

4. Memories. Students typically spend only four to six years in undergraduate study, a period that quickly becomes a distant memory. For many alumni, competitive athletics provide some of the most salient memories. The recollections are not always pleasant; my most indelible memory from my undergraduate years at Yale is the football disaster, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," in which the two ivy-league schools tied for the Ivy crown, although the Harvard Crimson claimed otherwise in its headline. Nevertheless, such events become a part of the joy we have in recalling our college days. Even as an administrator, I'm sure that long after my retirement I'll remember the excitement of the OSU 2010 football season in which Oklahoma State finished 11-2.

5. Lifetime fitness. Research over the past decade increasingly shows the amazing correlation between lifetime fitness and better adult health and longevity. Mental decline, not just physical deterioration, has been tied to lack of physical exercise and healthy nutrition. Many of the habits we acquire in college become the behaviors we maintain over a lifetime. Physical fitness should be one of them. 

Even for those who argue that a college education should develop primarily the life of the mind, athletics is important because of the ties between mental awareness and physical health. Thus, involvement even of college faculty and staff in making use of athletic facilities is important.

6. Recruitment. In general, applications climb when teams have winning seasons. For example, even after the Butler University basketball team fans saw the team so narrowly miss the national championship in its loss to Duke University, Butler saw its popularity skyrocket. Some faculty members might ask whether the school really wants those extra applicants, but it is almost always better to be able to select from a larger applicant pool. And the reason applications increase is not only that students want to attend a school with great teams. It also relates to what psychologists call the "availability heuristic." That is, winning championships, or even coming close, gives colleges a regional or even national visibility they would not otherwise have. In that way, the colleges become "available" in applicants' minds.

 It's true that most students will not play intramural sports, but many will engage in intramural athletics. Students who do play want good facilities. They want regulation-size fields, courts, and swimming pools. They want attractive locker rooms and up-to-date exercise facilities. Providing such facilities also helps recruit students to the institution.

7. Stress relief and prosocial behavior. College students are experiencing a time of their lives when they need to blow off steam. They have what seems at times to be boundless energy, and they need to channel it somewhere. They also require outlets to help them relieve stress. Athletics and physical-fitness activities in general can provide effective ways to channel energy and relieve anxiety. And such activities are certainly better alternatives than drug and alcohol use.

8. Well-roundedness and balance. Obviously, students go to college to study and learn. Much of that knowledge is gained in experiences outside the classroom. Some would argue that most of what they learn is extracurricular—a tacit knowledge of how to accomplish a life well lived.

Although studying hard is important, it is not all there is to the higher education experience. One of the critical things we learn is that there is always something that drives us: achieving the best grades to qualify for a top-notch graduate or professional program; leveraging graduate work to land a great job; achieving and accepting one promotion after another; and ultimately continuing to climb the professional ladder. But by focusing only on these work-related activities, we may reach a point where we feel that life is passing us by. To help avoid such disappointment, we need to learn that life is constantly a balancing act and that people who find a balance tend to be happier and more fulfilled. The college experience—and participation in athletics—can help provide such balance and fulfillment.

9. Town-gown relationships. The interests of a town sometimes, but not always, coincide with those of a college or university. On the one hand, a university is a source of jobs and usually provides education and entertainment venues for local citizens. On the other hand, some townspeople may resent the fact that college properties are typically untaxed; and they may encounter unacceptable behavior of college students in their community. College athletics, like college cultural events, can go a long way toward helping town-gown relations, if they are handled in a way that respects the interests of the surrounding community. By encouraging attendance at games and support of the college teams, the campus can draw in residents who might otherwise develop a somewhat antagonistic attitude toward the college or university. Athletic games create revenue for the town and, in cases such as varsity football, this is a substantial benefit.

10. Alumni loyalty and involvement. Every college and university wants to build a loyal and involved alumni base that can serve the institution in many ways. One of the most effective routes is to provide opportunities for alumni to serve as advocates and ambassadors, helping create a positive reputation. College athletics tend to keep alumni tied to and involved in the college. An important byproduct of these connections is the ability of alumni to hire graduates and otherwise assist them as they navigate through their careers.

11. Advancement. Perhaps the most controversial benefit of college athletics is in the area of advancement. Those of us who are active in fundraising learn quickly that alumni give for their own reasons, not those of the fundraisers. And we all know that winning teams translate into more dollars for many colleges. While not every team will be a winning team every year, many alumni appreciate it when a team gives its best, regardless of whether it wins or loses.

While some faculty might worry that all the advancement benefits of college athletics will go back to athletics, this simply is not true. Obviously, some of the funds support athletics, but contributions go to many other uses. In fact, college athletics can help in all areas of advancements by building loyalty, connection, and lifelong relationships.

12. Branding. The quality of an institution's brand helps determine the kind of students and faculty a college can attract; the resources that can accrue to it; and the general reputation it experiences in the community, state, country—and even the world. For better or worse, college athletics typically forms part of that brand. It will obviously be a more important part of the brand in some institutions than in others. But to those for whom it makes a difference, athletics can matter to the positive reputation of the school, and to the related licensing fees the brand can attract.

13. Lifelong friendships. Perhaps there is no other time in a person's life when he or she can make friendships in quite the way that is possible in the college years. Friendships often form best when people participate together in activities that are engaging and fun, and athletics can and should be fun for the players and fans involved. Whether we are fans or athletes, the friendships we make at the athletic field are often the ones that make a difference and the ones we call upon during critical points in our lives.

Three Caveats for College Athletics

College athletics face three serious challenges, and any one of them can destroy the value that they might otherwise bring to an institution.

Disparate missions. If college athletics become disconnected from the academic and leadership-development missions of an institution, the result can be a troubled relationship between the two entities. Pay attention to integrating the athletic programs with the leadership-development functions of the college, rather than allowing them to go on separate tracks.

Conflicting business models. When the athletics' business model is separate from that of the institution—or no model even exists—sports programs can become a drain on the business side of the overall operation. In some cases, they become a source of structural deficit in the university budget. In other circumstances, while there is money to be made, the programs and related revenue do not serve to enhance the functioning of the university as a whole.

Reputational risk. College athletics are fertile fields for high-profile ethical scandals. While nearly any aspect of a university can become enmeshed in serious misdealings, athletics violations and scandals tarnish college and university reputations in a way—and to a level—that few other kinds of malfeasance can reach.

All that said, when athletics harmonize with the academic and business missions of a college or university, the effect can be hugely positive. Done right and managed properly, I think college athletics might even be seen as necessary, not just nice to have. 

ROBERT J. STERNBERG is provost and senior vice president, Oklahoma State University.