Keeping Score

Should College Athletes Major in Sports?

One professor proposes that schools design an academic curriculum centered on sports, complete with credits for showing up to practice. Why the idea has merit

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Picture a big-time college basketball player on the foul line, on national television. Underneath his name on your TV set are the usual factoids: height, weight, hometown. And imagine, next to the word major, you saw the following:


Go ahead, laugh. Not many major college athletes sign up for “serious” academic pursuits to begin with — when’s the last time you saw the kid at the foul line majoring in electrical engineering? These athletes are out there, but they’re rare. So, heck, a basketball major? Why not?

But could a college athlete majoring in, ahem, basketball, be a more intellectually rigorous student than he otherwise would? David Pargman, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at Florida State University, makes a convincing case that a basketball, football, baseball major can do basketball, football, and baseball players a world of good.

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In an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, headlined “End the Charade: Let Athletes Major In Sports,” Pargman writes:

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

Acquisition of athletic skills is what significant numbers of NCAA Division 1 student athletes want to pursue. And this is undeniably why they’ve gone to the campus of their choice. Their confessions about their primary interest are readily proclaimed and by no means denied of repressed. These athletes are as honest in recognizing ad divulging their aspiration as is the student who declares a goal of performing some day at the Metropolitan Opera or on the Broadway stage. Student athletes wish to be professional entertainers. This is their heart’s desire.

Their family members, friends, and high-school coaches acknowledge and support that goal, so why not let them step out of the closet and declare their true aspiration – to study football, basketball, or baseball? Why not legitimize such an academic specialty in the same manner that other professional performance careers, such as dance, voice, theater, and music, are recognized and supported? Why treat preparation for professional sports careers differently? Why not establish a well-planned, defensible, educationally sound curriculum that correlates with a career at the elite level of sports?

Pargman then offers a model curriculum. After an athlete takes the same core requirements as the rest of the student population during his first two years, a “sports performance” program might look something like this:

  • Junior year, first semester: anatomy and physiology; educational psychology (introduction to learning theory); laboratory in heavy resistance training; football, basketball, or baseball offensive strategies (scrimmage).
  • Junior year, second semester: introduction to sports psychology; introduction to physiology of exercise; laboratory in aerobic fitness training; elements of contract law; football, basketball, or baseball laboratory (scrimmage); health education.
  • Senior year, first semester: introduction to human nutrition; public speaking; football, basketball, or baseball laboratory (offensive and defensive strategies); introduction to sports coaching.
  • Senior year, second semester: introduction to motor learning; stress and performance; elements of business law; the body in motion (kinesiology).

Business law, anatomy, psychology, public speaking — pretty heady stuff. Pargman would expect resistance within academia on his “laboratory” idea, which essentially gives athletes credit for practicing. “It’s easy to criticize,” Pargman says in a phone interview. “An elitist would say, ‘how can you put a sports performance major on par with English, or science or something?” But Pargman goes back to the theater, music and dance majors, who often receive academic credit while they train. “It’s hypocritical, and not intellectually honest, to not accommodate the interests of athletes,” says Pargman. “These are all people who want to perform in one way or another.”

Many performance arts majors, Pargman points out, do not make it as professional musicians or dancers, but find success in other, often unrelated fields. Most English majors, for that matter, do not become professional writers. Why couldn’t sports majors, having completed an enriching curriculum like Pargman’s, enjoy careers inside the world of sports – as coaches, physical therapists, business executives, etc. – or in other fields if they don’t make the NBA or NFL?

John Kilbourne, who holds undergraduate and masters degrees in dance, and is now a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, remembers getting credit for his practice sessions. For years, Kilbourne has been pitching the idea of a sports performance major; his doctoral dissertation, from 1994, offers a model similar to Pargman’s. Kilbourne said he was “thrilled” to see Pargman’s piece.  “Sports studies in a bona fide line of inquiry,” Kilbourne says. “The main reason why – sports is the most read, discussed, and listened to phenomenon of modern times.” He teaches a course on the history and philosophy of sports and physical activity. Some athletes in the class have told him that they are so interested in the subject matter, they read a book cover to cover for the first time. “They get excited about it, just like a music major studying a great musician would,” says Kilbourne. “They’re writing improves – I see it. They learn to question things. These are all good things.”

A sports major has drawbacks. “I’m not sure it fixes the clustering problem,” says Joel Cormier, an exercise and sports science professor at Eastern Kentucky University, and secretary of the Drake Group, a college sports reform organization. One lingering problem in college athletics is that jocks are culturally, and sometimes physically, separated from the rest of the students. If they signed up for an academic program only open to other athletes, the divide would be strengthened. “A sports degree that everybody sees as a jock degree, that could encourage an athlete-friendly faculty, only reinforces that,” says Cormier. Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown (Pa.) University, and former president of the Drake Group, argues that if schools create a sports major, athletes should have to meet the same admission requirements as other students. “They shouldn’t be given any special treatment,” says Lanter. “If they’re students, they’re students.”

One other practical problem: in basketball especially, some of the students who can best apply a sports performance major, and actually participate in the pros, leave school early, and would not be able to take advantage of the curriculum.

Will we ever see football players majoring in football? “It’s going to take a bold university president to move in that direction,” says Kilbourne.  “Someone has to say, ‘you know what, it might not work. But let’s try it.’” The current system is broken. So a sports major is worth a swing.

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