Getting A Degree In Football?

College athletics and academics are often at odds. One professor says it's time to end the charade and let athletes major in what they love - sports. Host Michel Martin speaks with Professor David Pargman of Florida State University, about why he thinks his proposal is more honest than what colleges are currently doing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we turn to college sports. It's no secret that college football and basketball can be huge moneymakers for colleges and universities around the country. It's also no secret that these same colleges and universities are often criticized for how well they serve these student athletes.

Many critics - including many inside these institutions - asked just why these students are in college at all. Is it to learn about Plato and Aristotle, or is to learn about jump shots and blocking schemes? Now, one educator says it's time to end the charade and let athletes major in what they really came to school to learn: sports.

David Pargman wrote about his proposal in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He's Professor Emeritus of Educational Psychology at Florida State University, and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID PARGMAN: It's my pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: So what exactly is it that you are proposing?

PARGMAN: Well, I'm suggesting a model that universities that have large sports programs should consider. I say that football athletes, basketball athletes and baseball athletes come to a campus - particularly Division I, big-time sport place - to study their respective sports under the tutelage of outstanding people, experts in the field who we might call the professors of basketball or football. That's how knowledgeable and experienced they are.

MARTIN: Well, one of the interesting things you say in your piece is that other professional performance careers - like dance, voice and theater - are recognized majors. They do have academic backing, and people who have been practitioners themselves who then teach are highly valued, and that's true. But you say that the same thinking doesn't apply to sports, and I wonder - and, you know, you've got me thinking, I wonder why that is. Why do you think that is?

PARGMAN: I think it's a matter of elitism in the minds of many academicians. Football and basketball and baseball are frivolous endeavors, and they should be removed from the college campus altogether. And I won't get into that argument, but I will say that those experiences are deeply embedded today. They are there. You can't tell the University of Michigan or Harvard or Florida State or the University of Florida to throw out athletics. It won't happen.

So, while sport is on the campus, and while it is using millions and millions of dollars in annual budgetary units, let's make it more legitimate.

MARTIN: To your point, Professor Pargman, I'm just looking at a tweet here from a football player at Ohio State. His name is Cardale Jones, and he tweeted: Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play football? We ain't come to play school. Classes are pointless. And the tweet was quickly deleted, but not before several blogs and media outlets caught it.

You know, you're at Florida State. Did any of them ever raise this question with you?

PARGMAN: Not directly. Through inference, though implication. I don't recall any athletes standing or sitting before me, saying: This is what I want. But I can tell from my years of experience working with undergraduates and graduate students, that they would - many of them would step forward and enroll in this.

MARTIN: In one of the other arguments, though, that people make in the opposite direction is people are leaving school with no other marketable skill other than sports, and they worry that if that sports career doesn't work out, the student is left with nothing - whereas, if they say, well, if they've studied something else, at least they have some background in something else. What do you say to that?

PARGMAN: There are many people who come to universities with the aspiration of going to medical school or law school and they fail to get in, so they have to retool and they have to take alternative directions. So, to the athletes, for example, who are truly interested in sport performance as a career, if they don't make it in the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball, can pursue alternate careers after additional study, such as athletic training, physical therapy. And there's a whole host of options.

MARTIN: You talk about that, and you actually offer a sample curriculum in your piece. You talk about studying anatomy and physiology, educational psychology, heavy resistance training, sports psychology, things of that sort that are, you know, highly relevant across fields. But also, one can see where they would be relevant to possible careers outside of sports. I'm dying to know what reaction you're getting to your piece.

PARGMAN: It's a little short of overwhelming. I never expected to engender so much reaction. The emails are flying. I'm getting phone calls from all over the country, and a lot of people are supportive, and some are antagonistic to this notion. There are colleagues of mine, very good friends, who have said to me: Where do you come off equating a major in football or basketball with majoring in a physical science like chemistry or physics, or in language like English literature? There's just no comparison. And I would say to them, when they say that, I say, have you ever looked at a football playbook?

MARTIN: But when you raise the issue of comparing it to arts training, like dance, voice, musical performance - I mean, you know, many famous artists do go to college, and they also major in some performance-related subject. What do they say?

PARGMAN: The few that I have spoken with are supportive of my idea. I think that's a strong analogy. Kids come to campus to be dancers or performers of some kind, and not many of them succeed. Not many dance students or musicians succeed in getting the kind of job they want, and the same thing with basketball players, football players. They're not dissuaded by the statistical analysis that says one out of every so many hundred thousands may make it to the NBA. They bring their heartfelt desire, their passion.

And why not accommodate them? A university is supposed to be an institution that prepares young people for life and for careers. I'm very uncomfortable with this hypocrisy where the kids are shunted into majors that they have absolutely no interest in and they're not motivated, and that may account for the poor graduation rate, as well.

MARTIN: David Pargman is Professor Emeritus of Educational Psychology at Florida State University. He's the author of a number of books. The latest is "Boomercise: Exercising as You Age." He was kind enough to join us from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida.

Professor Pargman, thank you for joining us.

PARGMAN: And thank you for having me on your show.

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