Colleges Should Offer Degrees in Athletic Performance, and Make Coaches Professors

News and views from academia.
April 3 2014 2:26 PM

“Put Me in, Professor”

Colleges should offer degrees in athletic performance, and make coaches professors.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez of the Arizona Wildcats
A professor and his students?

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Colleges and universities prepare students for almost all professions of note—except sports. To be sure, we have students pursuing degrees in sports management, kinesiology, and other related fields, but unlike students who come to study music performance, acting, creative writing, and other talent- and performance-based professions, our students who come with athletic talent and seek opportunities to perform are left out of the academic curriculum.

This is a significant omission, for as we all know, sports is big business. It is one of America’s major entertainment industries, and surely rivals orchestras, theaters, operas, and movies as professional post-college employment venues. We provide degrees in music performance, we have superb academic programs in opera focused on the production of major entertainment products by the university, and we have countless theatrical productions produced on campus by students majoring in acting.

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When we teach our students the profession of sports performance, however, whether in football, basketball, tennis, or track, we deny them the structure and benefit of a focused curriculum and degree.

It’s time for the sports performance degree. As anyone who watches the college sports enterprise knows, the profession of sports performance (i.e., being a professional athlete, whether on a golf tour or in professional baseball) is demanding, highly technical, and requires a combination of talent, skill, training, preparation, and dedication.

One only needs to observe the increasingly sophisticated methods and techniques required of baseball and football players, or the careful analysis that goes into learning golf techniques or tennis strategy, to understand that we should provide our students interested in sports performance with similar opportunities to those we provide students seeking a career as a violinist or operatic tenor.

To be sure, academic programs in music, or theater, or dance, with courses in theory and history, as well as performance, have been with us for a long time, and have well-established traditions and curriculums. Sports performance, with its tradition of amateur participation and a long-standing existence outside the academic program as an extracurricular activity, does not have the benefit of an academic tradition.

Yet today, we know that sports performance is a rigorous, demanding, and highly professionalized career for many people. Some participate as performers; others with a performance background in college athletics move into management, coaching, and other professional roles related to sports. The skills of sports performance are nontrivial and have highly specialized training and study required to perform them well, and most professional athletes acquire sophisticated training and understanding of their games to ensure a successful career.

It’s time to re-examine the nature of sports performance and see whether we can construct an academically viable course of study analogous to what we have done for music or dance.

How can we make the transition from sports as extracurricular activity to sports as an academic discipline? The first step is to recognize that sports as an extracurricular activity already exists in the university through elaborate systems of intramural and recreational sports, and as well through club sports that play competitions in nonprofessional contexts with other universities. But for those students seeking a career in sports performance, the requirements for a degree would need to be carefully structured and clearly specified.

The best model would follow closely on the academic requirements expected of music performance majors at many of our premier universities: Indiana, Florida State, Michigan, and the University of Southern California, to take a few examples. In these programs, the students spend countless hours honing their performance skills and abilities through individual practice and have many performance requirements whereby they must display their skills before highly critical and expert audiences.

While an opera season at Indiana University may not draw quite the audience of an Indiana University basketball season, it surely would draw an audience that exceeded that of the IU golf or tennis team. It is not the size of the audience in any event that matters; what matters is the rigor of the preparation required of a student pursuing a performance major.

If students want to receive performance degrees, they not only must perform at the highest skill level (and be recruited and selected based on auditions that demonstrate the talent and commitment required to succeed), but they must also take a range of academic courses related to their professions. Musicians must take music theory, composition, and music history, for example. In addition, of course, they must fulfill the university’s general education requirements.

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