Fixing college sports is vital to increasing public support for colleges

America’s greatness in higher education stands in real danger. Frustrations over the cost, purpose and value of college – along with recent bitter campus disputes over free speech – are symptomatic of a crucial and more basic issue: the fraying bond of trust between our universities and the broad American public.

According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans feel higher education is moving in the wrong direction.

There have been periods before of skepticism and even hostility toward elite higher education, particularly during the campus turmoil of the 1960s. But American higher education has flourished from generation to generation because of strong political support and rising enrollment.

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Yet today, Americans have become more wary. One place to start repairing their bond with higher education is by fixing what ails one of its underappreciated elements: college sports.

I am in the uncommon position of being a former Division I college football player who now leads a university – Longwood University in Virginia. Both those experiences have shown me, from all sides, why sports are so important to the academic cause.

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As the son and grandson of college presidents, I’m one of the very few third-generation college presidents in America. This perspective has also helped me realize that athletic competition has historically served as a vital link between the public and higher education.

In the late 19th century, America’s colleges were a struggling patchwork. Their emergence in the century that followed as the world’s first mass-scale and dominant higher education system was almost unforeseeable.

Many institutions enrolled just a few dozen students in the late 1800s, and – despite the emphasis America’s founding generation had put on college – higher education had relatively little hold on popular culture.

But this formative period had some important ingredients that spurred competition, including weak central government and deep religiosity. College athletics – especially football and later basketball – have often been thought of as an aside in the history of American higher education. But at this critical and highly competitive juncture they were a central catalyst.

It’s notable that Frederick Rudolph’s magisterial 1962 book “The American College & University: A History” devotes an entire chapter to college football’s critical role during the late 19th and early 20th century, when American college enrollment expanded more than ten-fold.

Recruiting of athletes democratized student bodies and social life. Supporting athletics galvanized alumni and – as institutions grew and students no longer uniformly followed a single, common curriculum – also forged bonds of institutional loyalty that even extended beyond students and alumni.

Athletics created a range of college and university supporters “for whom the idea of going to college was out of the question but for whom the idea of supporting the team was a matter of course,” Rudolph writes.

The political impact soon followed. “Land-grant colleges and state universities discovered that athletic victories often were more important than anything else in convincing reluctant legislators to open the public purse,” Rudolph writes.

Stanford sociologist David Labaree advances that story considerably in his recent book “A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education.” He cites a number of factors that fostered the connection between colleges and the non-college educated public – fueling the expansion of higher education, including the land-grant missions of many public universities.

But Labaree also gives athletics – along with the assorted traditions of homecoming, school colors, fight songs and other aspects of campus life and institutional loyalty – great credit for the globally unique bond between the broad American public and higher education.

It’s a bond that made possible more than just enrollment growth and public support. Athletics, along with land-grant research in areas like agriculture, gave the work of universities an anchor of credibility that afforded them leeway to pursue consequential research that might at first seem elitist or impractical.

“One secret to the institutional success of the American university,” Labaree writes, “is the ability to shore up support for its academic activities with strong appeals to populism and practicality. Football and grass seed are as central to its success as scholarly publications.”

That attachment persists to this day, still connecting dark blue college towns like Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill or Athens and the institutions based there with the much redder states they serve.

Only one-third of American adults hold a college degree, but many without a degree cheer for college teams and aspire for their children and grandchildren to have the experience of college and become graduates.

And Frederick Rudolph would be amazed today by how many more college students there are and by how proportionally few Americans think of college as “out of the question.” Participation in college athletics is part of that story, too.

A half-million student-athletes compete in the NCAA – the vast majority in sports attracting less attention than football and basketball. The stories of these student-athletes show their home communities that there are pathways – rooted in hard work – into institutions of higher learning.

And student-athletes overwhelmingly make the most of the opportunity, graduating overall at much higher rates than non-student athletes.

For many throughout America, college is also simply that much more appealing because of the opportunity to cheer for a big-time athletics program, like those in the SEC or Big Ten.

Recruiting students was the original impetus of the University of Notre Dame football in the 1890s. The program succeeded not just in strengthening Notre Dame, but in helping make higher education itself more appealing to tens of millions of American Catholics.

And whatever persuades people to go to college, the powerful benefits to the economy and democracy of having a society with more college graduates are clear both in the data and our collective experience.

Athletics forge a crucial connection with the public, and so it should be no surprise that as new scandals emerge in college sports with dispiriting routine, Americans are also simultaneously losing faith in higher education as a whole.

College football and basketball in particular face serious self-inflicted wounds and serious challenges. There remains too little accountability over big-time athletics programs within universities themselves.

College athletics don’t have to turn a profit to have value. Over-the-top compensation for top coaches and costly facilities for high-end programs feed the narrative that college sports are simply a sleazy side business of universities, with no connection to their central missions.

But college sports have reformed and thrived before in response to a troubled era. During the 1905 college football season, for instance, 19 players died from injuries, building on a horrible trend in the early 20th century.

Several leading universities dropped their football teams, and Harvard, Yale and Princeton were on the verge – an action that would have killed the sport. But President Teddy Roosevelt took it as a matter of national interest to negotiate safety improvements that revolutionized the game, thus allowing the fruitful bond it created between institutions and the public to grow.

Today, the NCAA and other bodies are serious in their resolve to improve. Whether sports fans or not, we should support these efforts and demand more.

Beyond technical and regulatory changes, reforming college athletics calls for robust energy and farsighted attention similar to the actions of President Roosevelt in scope – acts of political boldness in higher education.

A national commission to restore faith in college athletics could propose recommendations to improve student-athlete safety and wellbeing, rationalize recruiting, and ensure the lion’s share of money in big-time college sports serves as a catalyst to the academic enterprise.

It may be difficult to imagine political leadership for such a project in this day and age, but it can be done. The Rice Commission Report made meaningful recommendations in recent months that focused on college basketball – including NCAA governance changes, stricter penalties for violations, and greater freedom and flexibility for student-athletes to make decisions about pursuing professional opportunities.

Unfortunately, those recommendations were drowned out in the public debate by critics upset the report didn’t take the much more dramatic step of professionalizing (or de-amateurizing) college basketball.

But that decision was the right one – and the public connection to the fundamental importance of higher education that college athletics foster is one of the reasons why, in addition to the profound personal benefit to individual student-athletes of a college education.

The benefit of seeing a hometown student-athlete succeed at the college level, the ideal that this is a worthy goal, and the pride it instills all are very much a part of what we must revive, not extinguish.

In 2006, a University of California report on accountability in higher education concluded: “Public trust is the single most important asset of higher education in this nation.” Were this trust to falter, “institutions will find decreasing support from public funds, donors will not give, policymakers will be increasingly adversarial and resources and institutional autonomy will be replaced by increased governmental intervention.”

Athletics are not an obvious foundation stone of that trust. Many voices, including on campuses, contend college sports represent everything this is wrong with college. But in reality, athletics lie at the heart of the uniquely American bond between the public and higher education.

That bond is essential if higher education is to play the role the founders envisioned in maintaining a democratic republic. To preserve that bond, we of course must keep college affordable and accessible to the full range of Americans, of all backgrounds and viewpoints.

But we can also help by fixing what ails big-time college athletics – and appreciating all that remains so deeply valuable and inspiring.

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