Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has wisely raised concerns about graduation rates by college athletes, particularly the basketball players now in the NCAA basketball tournaments. Sports fans like me enjoy these great, national contests, but we need to remember these young people are still students who would benefit from a successful college degree.
As we struggle to treat athletes like young people rather than entertainers, we need to think hard about why so many have difficulty with their studies. Certainly, the NCAA and colleges devote a lot of resources to fixing this, from creating eligibility requirements to providing tutors and supervised study times.
My own thinking is shaped by watching a culture of followers among athletes. Athletes make great leaders, to be sure, but they are first followers—of their coaches. Believing in the team and in a common mission is important to victory, so athletes learn how to follow the pack. That feeling of solidarity is powerful, enjoyable, and exciting.
Serious athletes—and all college athletes at every division level today are serious—spend most of their time with teammates. In addition to practicing, playing and traveling together, they almost always live together. They join the same fraternities and sororities. They may know no other students.
So it should be no surprise that they tend to make the same academic choices. They take the same classes. They congregate around the same majors, such as Economics and Political Science. They study together. They seek out the same skills, many of them in business, thinking they need them for careers.
And here lies the problem. Where solidarity might work athletically, it does not academically. When athletes homogenize their studies, they lose the chance to grow intellectually and to find subjects they love. They see their classes as an extension of their team, when classes should be a place to explore alone. When you pick classes because your friends are there, you are not developing ownership of your education. You are not nurturing your natural curiosity to examine and understand the world.
And without that curiosity, the motivation to go to class, to do the hard work, to ask good questions all evaporates. When athletes do this, their studies lose meaning and importance. Then they fail out, drop out or lose their eligibility. And, of course, they don’t graduate.
If you are a student athlete, then, think about what you want to learn. What makes you ask questions? What would you like to know? In your opinion, what should an educated person know?
Your teammates and coaches cannot answer those questions. Only you can.