March is my favorite time of year: the end of winter, spring break and, of course, March Madness. I am a college basketball junkie. I used to play myself and I love the excitement, the team play, the win-or-go-home attitude and the frequent upsets. (Virginia’s loss on Sunday destroys my bracket!)
This seems an appropriate moment to reflect on student-athletes — the talented college students who are performing for us on the court throughout the NCAA tournament. These young men are extraordinary athletes, playing under enormous pressure. They have trained hard all season, they have won games against great odds, and they have pushed themselves beyond usual physical and mental limits. They represent their universities with pride, and we take great pride in their accomplishments — even when they lose tough games, as happened with the University of Texas basketball team Thursday against Butler.
As I enjoy the games, I also feel a sense of remorse. Most of the players we watch will never make it into the NBA. Most will never earn a dime for their play. What will they do? Are they getting a quality education that prepares them to succeed as non-athletes in our society? What do they get for their performances on the court? What have we encouraged them to expect?
I am a deep believer in the ideal of the well-rounded citizen, and for that reason I view athletics as central to university excellence. The best students should be intellectually sharp, musically adept and athletically skilled. Great universities support greatness in all areas.
My concern is that college athletics no longer fits that ideal. What we are watching on our television screens are players who see themselves as full-time athletes and part-time students, at best. Their studies are really only an afterthought. The quarterback for the national champion Ohio State football team was unique only in his willingness to admit, in a widely circulated tweet, that he viewed classes as a waste of his time. Too many college athletes are encouraged to feel the same way. Classes are required to qualify them to play — which is what they really think they are supposed to do at university.
The fault is not entirely or even primarily with the athletes. All of us, as spectators, are comfortable watching these great players, suspending our concerns about their work in the classroom. We learn their names during the NCAA tournament, but we rarely, if ever, ask about what they study or what they intend to do after their brief moments of March Madness fame pass away. We are content to cheer their athletic performances and then forget them when they no longer entertain us. They really do lose and then go home, and for many college athletes, home is not a pretty place.
I want our sports programs at the University of Texas to improve, and I want to continue watching better college athletes perform at the highest level. They make me proud and I enjoy seeing them do their stuff, especially when they crush Big 12 opponents. My concern is that we address, head-on, the true challenges of educating college athletes. How can we make sure they get a serious education while they are in college? How can we make sure they are prepared for post-athletic careers?
During the 14 years that I have been a professor at two leading college sports campuses, I have seen overwhelming evidence that we are not educating our college athletes as we should. Reports from recent scandals at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University reinforce this observation.
College athletes receive extensive tutoring, but they are consistently encouraged to stay away from difficult majors and challenging classes. College athletes are told they must attend class, but they have practice and game schedules that often make it virtually impossible for them to show up. When they do show up, especially near the end of the semester, their bodies are broken down. I have had football and basketball players come to class who can barely walk and hold their heads up in November and March. Their goal, echoing the advice they receive from their tutors, is to “just get through.”
That should not be enough for great universities. My dream is for the University of Texas to become an even greater athletic powerhouse with true student-athletes who play hard and study hard. I want our athletes to model, for all students, what it means to be a successful person: balancing studies, athletics, relationships and health. This will never happen if we do not acknowledge the imbalances today and act to address them.
The University of Texas is the largest college athletic program in the country. It is time we step up and lead, showing how we can truly educate the best student-athletes of our time, showing their stuff in the classroom as well as on the playing field. We should have a plan for all-around excellence and nothing less. We should start now, and everyone on campus should be a part of it.
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.