As people complete or complain about the outcomes of their college basketball March Madness brackets, money is in the air. Betting is abundant; so is watching television to see game outcomes. Dollars are spent on bracket parties. People are buying jerseys and other memorabilia. College spirit, evidenced through ticket sales, is on the rise.
Green is the real color of the events.
And yes, the student athletes get none of this money. Ostensibly, they can’t and don’t bet; they don’t share in the revenues generated from the March Madness activities directly (their home institution does of course) and they don’t get dollars from the use of their name and likeness – no matter how often it is used or sold.
These outcomes lead many to criticize the whole March Madness event and extrapolate from there to critiquing all of collegiate sports. To be sure there is much about which to complain. Scandals abound (look at conviction of former president of Penn State). Most student-athletes never make it into the NBA or their sports’ equivalent. Some are injured. Many in the “elite” sports at the “elite” programs (don’t read Ivy League here; read Kentucky and Kansas and UNC) don’t earn a degree.
It is easy to criticize March Madness but I have a vastly different take on this — without condoning cheating and lying and injuries. Ask this question of yourselves; it is the same one I ask myself repeatedly: Were it not for these athletic programs, where would these student-athletes be?
I can tell you one place they would not be: college.
And, it is true that a goodly number of the students playing in March Madness are not in college to learn from their professors – even at non-elite programs. Many do not do the assigned academic work or if they do the work assigned, they don’t do it as a priority (or on their own). Many student athletes are spending so much time on their sports, even if they are academically inclined. The reality is that varsity teams do not have time to partake in the many activities on a campus – from lectures to exhibits to musical performances to clubs. And, to be sure, the latter might not interest them.
But, pause for a moment, move away from collegiate athletics and reflect on the value and importance of osmosis. Look at that science term for more than a nano-second. One of the definitions is “a subtle or gradual absorption or mingling.” Stated differently, student-athletes on a campus actually do learn something just by being exposed to a college. If you sit in on a class for a year, even if you never crack a book, you do learn something. You do take in some ideas that are new to you. You do see learning happening. You do get that there is actually something happening in that classroom.
And, when you spend a year on a college campus, particularly if you live on campus and see and eat with other students, you are exposed to learning – psychosocial learning. You see people engaging and talking and sharing. You see people of all shades, sizes, and genders living and working together – as roommates, as study-mates, as friends.
And, you may have no awareness of the learning that is occurring.
I don’t for a minute mistake the experience of student-athletes with the experience of a physics major working in a lab. Nor do I mistake the student-athlete experience for that of the English major who is deconstructing literature to divine an author’s true meaning with the help of classmates and a brilliant literary critic. And I certainly do not mistake student-athletes for the students who are engaging in campus-wide clubs and organizations that foster their interests and curiosity and leadership. Nor do I misunderstand the difference between student-athletes’ relationships with their professors and student life personnel and their intense relationship with their coaches and trainers. (Ponder the possibility that coaches with their structure actually provide their athletes with a “home” and consistency they may have lacked.)
Naïve I am not.
But, consider this analogy. If you spend one year in a non-English speaking nation, with different cultural norms, different food, different types of social engagement, different living conditions and most assuredly different forms of expression, you learn something – even if there isn’t a class or a classroom or a professor. You osmose what is happening around you just by being there. And, you grew as a person just by that exposure. You absorb new words, new understandings.
I understand fully that professional sports are the destination of choice for many elite student-athletes. (The same is true for many kids, despite the non-reality of it all.) I get too that that does not happen for many. But, absent their collegiate experience, the pathway to professional sports would not even exist. And, the effort to get into the world of professional athletics via college isn’t an easy or straight pathway for many student-athletes – even those who excel. Some never progress; some head to Europe. Some coach.
So, in the meanwhile, these college kids are “hanging around” an environment that has the potential to enrich them. And, if institutions were to focus on this, it could happen more effectively and with intentionality. Ponder that lost opportunity by institutions not taking overt steps to appreciate “osmosis” and its power.
Given a choice between putting student-athletes on the street for a year or in a college for a year, I’d pick the educational environment every time. And, it is not far-fetched to realize that these kids osmose education — and that is vastly better than some other things that could inhale.
So, green may be the color of March Madness. But, I see education happening too – not in any traditional sense but in a way that answers the critiques who those who suggest that the whole student-athlete thing is a sham. It isn’t – for many student-athletes. I’d put money on that.
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.