08/23/2012 11:33 am ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

The Bright Side of College Athletics


With all the negative press surrounding college athletics, perhaps it is time to reflect on the fact that sport can not only peacefully coexist with a wholesome college education but can actually help produce better graduates. There is, in fact, a bright side of college athletics: used properly, sports build better educated, more responsible graduates.

Few in any debate are unbiased, and I certainly am not. While I speak only for myself, I am the president of The Sun Conference athletic conference, and a member of the Council of Presidents (essentially the Board of Trustees) of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). So, you can rightly conclude that we think sports are swell.

I run a small university established in 1896. Most of our students are also athletes. With fewer than 2,000 traditional, full-time undergraduates, our schools field softball, baseball, men's and women's basketball, women's volleyball, men's and women's beach volleyball (FL), men's and women's soccer, men's and women's golf, men's and women's tennis (FL), men's and women's track (indoor and outdoor), men's and women's cross country, men's wrestling (NC), men's and women's lacrosse (NC), men's and women's bowling (FL; current national champions), men's and women's triathlon (FL), football (FL), men's wrestling (NC), men's and women's swimming (NC), cheerleading, six equestrian teams (NC), and a pipe (NC) and marching (FL) band. All of our teams are competitive and a few are very good.

But we also think that part of the reason sports have been such a good thing at our schools is that they are a means to an end: producing quality graduates. And, that's an easily replicable proposition.

It starts with accepting reality. Few who participate in sports in college at any level will go on to become professional athletes. That's actually true at any school... no matter how fanciful the yarn a coach spins while recruiting might be, the fact is that a miniscule percentage of college athletes go on to be professional athletes. Our students know this, we know this, but it doesn't make the games any less fun or any less intense. Being honest about the importance of preparing for a career "just in case the pros don't work out" yields results: even though for the vast majority it will not be as a professional athlete, most of our students will have a job lined up before they graduate. Few at any school in the nation will go to a career in professional sport. Accepting that fact, however, makes a dramatic difference in a student's prospects on graduation day.

It continues with focus and balance. We say "student-athlete" for a reason, and it's not alphabetization! Our student who did make it to the NFL likes to recount the story of his mother not letting him play in 10th grade because she didn't like his grades. We -- the schools, the conferences, the NAIA -- make every effort to schedule games around classes, and not the other way around. Webber wins more national championships in Phi Beta Lamdba's annual head to head competition of business knowledge and skills than we do on the courts or the fields, but we still have our fair share of championship athletics banners hanging in the gym. Webber also posts team GPA by sport and it's part of the discussion at coaches' annual reviews. And woe be onto the student-athlete who chooses sleeping in over going to class... the conversation in the coach's office is likely to be less pleasant than the one in the professor's office.

Then, there's capitalizing on what you've got. The values and lessons of sport are transferrable to the classroom, the boardroom, and life in general. What do student athletes know? They understand teamwork. And, they understand that little comes without hard work... weights which are easy to lift simply don't build muscle and rare is the painless victory. They also understand that both the boardroom and polite society have their own equivalents of a facemask foul. They understand the value of asking for and giving help. They know if an opponent is injured the game stops until the more important business is taken care of. And, they know that winning at all cost isn't all it's cracked up to be. It takes leadership and commitment throughout the organization, but a surprising proportion of young men and young women are willing to become not just champions, but champions of character (a tagline -- and set of guiding principles -- of the NAIA).

And, of course, what about the money? No discussion about college athletics is ever complete without a discussion about the money. The reality is that the majority of schools don't get any money from their athletics association... they don't get television money, or scholarship money, or licensing money. There are programs -- foundations, associations, affiliations -- which benefit student athletes in one way or another. A few schools get some of their championship travel expenses covered. And, fewer still directly share in revenue. But, for the majority, the financial relationship is much simpler: the schools mail their dues check once a year and the accounting is done for another year. The school buys basketballs, and jerseys, and funds scholarships however they can: alumni, specific gifts, or general funds. And, as often as not, the booster club is out convincing their friends buy tickets, selling doughnuts, and washing cars to help out with expenses.

Relegated to their proper place -- what used to be called "extracurricular" for a reason -- sport is a powerful part of college. It builds character, it builds leadership, it builds teamwork, it builds healthy lifestyles, and it build school spirit. In sum, it athletics can be a powerful part of building what our students come to us to build: a well-educated, highly employable graduate.

Perfect? Nope. But college athletics can be a very good thing, and are worthy of our support.