Friday, July 13, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Sports at Community Colleges

A new correspondent writes:

Here at Way Up North CC, our little gym just died, and we're renovating it from top to bottom next year. During that year, no intercollegiate athletics...and no weightroom for me. I posted the following on our campus discussion board and wondered if you had any thoughts on small cc's (with live-in students) involvement with sports. Obviously, I'm far from disinterested....

Why do we have intercollegiate athletics at WUNCC?

The traditional reasons:

* athletics bring money, prestige, alumni loyalty, publicity to the school.

* athletics offer athletes the chance to learn leadership and teamwork.

* athletics give the school a 'face' and 'personality' students can identify with.

* athletics offer students the chance to develop their bodies and skills--'sound mind in a sound body'--and a healthy way to mitigate the pressures of work and school.

I wonder how many of those obtain at WUNCC.

Do athletics make money for the school or cost money? What percentage of students directly benefit from the program? How many of our student athletes show leadership outside of the gym? What percentage of students are coming to games?

My impression is that most of our students are far too busy to participate in sports and that, although sports are very important to the few people who do play, sports are far less important to the non-participants than to non-participants in high school.

My further impression from 20 years of using the weight room and observing the J-- Gym goings-on is that fewer students today are pumping iron, shooting hoops, playing badminton and pingpong, or in the gym at all. That's a shame, because the best justification for diverting resources from education is that an athletic program exists to develop lifelong participants, lifelong players, lifelong exercisers, lifelong healthy people--just as we say our educational program exists to develop lifelong learners.

But if our institutional focus is on excellence, teams, and intercollegiate play, rather than broad participation and fun, we ignore the best justification for sports in favor of the lesser ones.

We have a year to consider why we promote an athletic program that only a small minority of our students use.

There's a lot here.

My cc doesn't have residential students – most don't – so I don't know to what extent that variable makes a difference. (It does have intercollegiate teams in several sports.) And the issues of gym facilities, phys ed requirements, and intercollegiate athletics are distinct, even if they're related.

From what I've observed of student life here, there isn't much of a culture of fandom. I've never attended a game of any of my cc's teams, nor have most of my colleagues. I couldn't tell you which teams are doing well or badly in a given year. The students don't seem attuned either, other than the athletes themselves and their personal friends. Intercollegiate play here is a very different animal from intercollegiate play in, say, the Big 10.

At the athletic powerhouses, as I understand them, conspicuous teams – football, basketball – have a pronounced effect on both alumni giving and incoming student applications. Neither is true here.

Sports, for us, are a money-losing proposition, but we maintain them out of a sense that even the kid who couldn't afford to go away – or who had a checkered high-school experience – deserves a shot at the full college experience. (We make the same argument for student plays.) I'm firmly agnostic on the claim that sports builds character, but I recognize that involvement in sports can tie students more closely to a college and therefore make eventual graduation likelier. Students on teams form bonds, just as students in a band or club do. Students with bonds at the college are statistically likelier to see their programs through to graduation. The causal link is hard to prove, but intuitively plausible – you're less likely to be intimidated or indifferent if you have friends around. To the extent that we can use, say, the baseball team to give otherwise-indifferent students a reason to stick around and succeed, I'm willing to look past some of the milder excesses of jock culture.

(That said, the relatively low priority of sports at most cc's means that jocks don't get the kind of carte blanche for bad behavior that they might get at a football factory. They just aren't worth it. I've personally been on a committee that voted to expel an athlete for cheating – we greeted the news of his team membership with a collective shrug, and sent him packing.)

I take a weird, maybe contradictory, position on this stuff. I don't mind having some reasonably low-cost teams around – we don't do football, which is a real money-suck – and I'm glad that we have some pretty good workout facilities available on campus for students, faculty, and staff. (I can be found there myself on a pretty regular basis during the school year.) But I don't believe in a campuswide phys ed requirement, and I'm not sold on the argument that making students play badminton at 19 will prevent obesity at 40. (I'm especially not sold on requiring the returning student, the 35-year-old single Mom attending classes at night after work, to take gym class. Something about adding insult to injury.) To me, a good gym open to students is sort of like a good library open to students: it's something a college should make available, but not mandate a set number of hours of use.

I guess where the residential/non-residential split might be relevant would be with intramurals. If most students commute, I don't see those working. With a fair number of students in dorms, they might.

Fair readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.