"March Madness" is over. Now name the strong academic programs at Duke University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Kentucky, or Michigan State University? Most Americans can identify their mascots. Most can tell you which team had the tallest players. But we haven’t a clue about academic programs. Most alumni relate to their alma mater through sports. Whether you graduated from a school of engineering or law or journalism or other field, in Kansas you are a Jayhawk or Wildcat or Shocker or whatever. School identity focuses on sports, not academics. How could it be otherwise?
In two months I will be back in China, a country that excludes sports from university identities. There are plenty of basketball and table tennis courts on the campuses I visit. But there is no school-versus-school competition that rouses students and binds them to a school mascot or symbol.
Students identify with their university through their school of study. At Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University (their equivalent of our Kansas State University), students get just one day off from academics each year for a large internal sports marathon. Freshmen march into the stadium Olympics-style with their departmental classmates. Both skilled and unskilled compete in a wide variety of sports. But who wins is rapidly forgotten. For the rest of the year, students attend classes. Academics is "Job One." No Chinese student attends regular universities to prepare for entering the professional leagues.
China recognizes young students who have sports talent. They are channeled through a few elite schools that provide genuine academics while the students prepare for the Olympics and other international competition. Most Chinese cannot even name these few special schools.
But Chinese can be just as exuberant fans of sports teams as are Americans. They have professional teams, but they are sponsored by cities—for instance, their Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club participates in their Chinese Super League. The Beijing versus Guangzhou rivalry is just as emotionally focused as K.U. Jayhawks versus K-State Wildcats. Adults exhibit the same over-the-top excesses. Banners. Bumper stickers. Decorated cars. Tons of sports paraphernalia. But all are unrelated to schooling.
Sports has a valuable place in American education. In the last decades, there has been a major shift in the accomplishments of female students—they are now making up 70 percent or more of all college students. Some of this shift can be attributed to 3-million-plus boys dropping out of American high schools and colleges, videogame-addicted and living in their parents’ basement. But part of this ascendence of girls centers on the assertiveness that playing sports provides. Today’s American girls are participating in sports more than ever before, thanks to Title IX requirements that made sports more available. China likewise provides sports activities in elementary and secondary schools. But it never generates us-against-them competition. And it does not corrupt their higher education.
The extent that some athletics has overridden American higher education was made clear in the recent University of North Carolina scandal. For nearly two decades, some student athletes were enrolled in courses they never attended. They did little to nothing to earn many of their course grades.
The idea that an athlete would attend a college and ignore coursework in an attempt to be exposed to the professional leagues enough to get a million-dollar contract—is rightly seen as corrupt in China. It should also be condemned here.
The bonafide student athlete, who works hard both on the court and in class, is a joy to work with.
But for each student who hits the professional league jackpot, hundreds do not go professional. Some leave school with neither a career in sports nor an education. And some are going through the motions of being a student, their lack of scholarly participation dragging down classes and wasting state tuition subsidies.
At the university level, Mary Willingham, co-author of the new book Cheated: the UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-time College Sports summarizes clearly the American sports problem in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education: "What’s happened in our Division I athletic programs across the country is that the athletic machine is in charge of the university. The faculty have lost control there. ...The real losers are not the faculty or the administrators or the NCAA. The real losers are the students themselves."