Big Blue Musings

As I sit here watching the championship basketball game for the men’s NCAA Division 1 teams, I will be the first to admit that I didn’t think that Kentucky would make it out of the first round. I shook my head, mumbled something about a program that keeps having to reinvent itself year after year with the ebb and flow of first-and-last year students, and resolved to watch for the game and the skill. These guys are the same age as the students who I teach and work with every day; even though my students are D-2 rather than D-1, they are passionate about their sports and work as hard as they play. It’s about the skill of the sport, the strategy and the athleticism required in the game. I figured I’d treat the men’s tourney like I treat the women’s tourney, and watch for the love of the game.

Seriously, I didn’t expect them to make it this far. I doubted the Wildcats, I doubted their ability to persist through the tournament. And, to be honest, I’m glad that I’ve been proven wrong.

(Now: 5:59 left in the 1st half. The Cats are behind by 15 points. I’m thinking that the Huskies have their number this time… and in the time it takes me to type that sentence, they add five points to the board. Sheesh.)

As I sit here in my Kentucky blue sweatshirt – the sweatshirt that I wear nearly every evening and many mornings when I’m standing behind the microphone – I can’t help but feel conflicted about the situation that the Kentucky team exemplifies. The program succeeds in the short term because it gives talented young players the visibility and experience they need before they are able to enter into the professional arena. But the long term… I don’t know. I remember the years when there were legacies and outstanding seniors who rose to the occasion and shined during their final years. It seems that the model used now is one that drives for individual and short-term success, rather than sustaining a larger program and mission. A larger institution, even.

I’m not a basketball recruiter, but I do teach first-year university students. A good portion of my dayjob involves working with students to help them find their place in the within the university community and helping to keep them within the community to help them persist to graduation. Part of me wants to join in the “one and done” criticism of the short-term recruiting mentality; part of me wonders what protection that formula affords these young men who leave their universities with a year of playing experience and less than a year of transferable college credits. At the same time, part of me understands that the role that basketball and Division I sports in general play for larger universities. These sports are integral parts of a university’s identity, and the sport is just as much of a marketing tool as graduation rates and dollar amounts of research grants. Students rally around teams as a means of identity and camaraderie… but in this case, are the student-athletes less student and more athletes employed by the university in between their high school years and their push toward professional leagues?

(At the half.)

Again, I don’t get it… in the dayjob, I’m an academic first. I’m an academic who believes that one should work hard and study hard, but I’m of the opinion that attending university means that the main objective is scholarly pursuit. If you’re not doing that, are you a student? If a university actively recruits students who have no intent to finish their academic programs, what does that say about their focus on academics? What message does that send to prospective students who could finish, but who can’t shoot three-pointers or rush for a hundred yards on the field?

I don’t think there’s an easy or quick answer on this one. Every school is different; I cringe when students are admitted to improve a team’s odds in the coming season and they struggle with intermediate algebra and basic writing. I wonder what it’s like at larger universities, and I wonder how my colleagues at those universities can cheer for their teams and still support their students on the court and on the field.

(About to start the second half.)

Winning the national championship will do more for the first-year players on Kentucky’s team than will a second-place designation. There’s additional pressure to win when that “one-and-done” echoes from multiple places. For a program that plays its seniors and maintains a legacy of sorts, there is less pressure to win… but only slightly less.

(15:00 remaining. Dear heavens, this is a rough and messy match-up.)

Well, who knows where this game will end. Either way, there will be classes tomorrow, and students will be held accountable for their coursework at both of these universities. In the grand scheme of things, the win or loss won’t really matter to the persistence of students enrolled at either university… unless they’re part of the group at the tournament.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 7th, 2014 at 9:50 pm and is filed under academics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Big Blue Musings”

  1. Anne Elizabeth Baldwin Says:

    The star athlete in my high school class was determined to use athletic scholarships to put himself thru school so he could get a degree. He figured he’d need that degree later. I don’t think he expected to make a career out of sports. {smile}

    However, I think he was unusual in all of this. It’s not usual for a high school athlete to admit he’s envious of the smart kids because they’ll get thru college and get better jobs. Especially not while talking to “one of the smart kids,” even if we were in a relatively secluded classroom at the time. {chuckle, Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  2. Doc Coleman Says:

    The trend in college athletics to use and discard athletes is pretty disgusting. Even for college athletes who intend to go on for careers as professional athletes, there are a lot of skills they need that the universities don’t address. I wonder if you could make a case that college makes them less prepared by wasting their time with overly simple, easy to pass classes that don’t serve their needs when compared to athletes who try to go directly from high school to the pros.