With 2,100 students, Spelman College is a small school. But the historically black college in Atlanta has made a decision that is making it stand out in a big and bold way. Last year, Spelman’s board of trustees approved a plan to eliminate its athletic department and use both the funds and the facilities for a fitness and wellness program.
Spelman College Scraps Its Sports Programs
When Beverly Tatum, the college’s president, made the announcement to athletes, coaches and administrators, the result was a “rough day” and gasps of incredulity, a sign of how deeply sports are intertwined not only in student athletes’ lives, but in a school’s identity. The scandal surrounding the conviction of former coach Jerry Sandusky for sexually abusing children tarnished not only Penn State University’s vaunted football program, but has had ramifications for the university as a whole.
Spelman was not nationally known for its athletes, but these occupied “an integral, if muted, role at Spelman since its establishment 132 years ago in a church basement,” says the New York Times. Softball, basketball, volleyball and soccer teams are no more and their facilities — fields and courts — are quiet. Only the tennis team is left; it is scheduled to compete in the Great South Athletic Conference tournament at the end of April and will then be disbanded.
Finances were a reason: Spelman had about 80 athletes and the athletics department received about $900,000 in funding, out of a budget of about $100 million. The configuration of the athletic conference Spelman belonged to, the Great South, was changed after a number of other schools left to join other conferences. For Spelman to do so would have meant devoting more resources to its athletics programs, to pay for higher travel costs, improvements to its athletic sites and adding teams in additional sports.
Aware of data linking poor diet and no exercise to heart disease and other medical problems in young black women, Tatum has emphasized that the main factor to eliminate sports teams was a desire to teach students about fitness and health, and cultivate these for their lifetimes. She was also motivated on seeing candles “being lighted on campus at 10-year reunions in memory of alumnae who had died.”
No one less than Germaine McAuley, Spelman’s athletic director and the chairwoman of the physical education department, said she thought the decision “truly makes sense.” Student athletes had far more mixed feelings, noting that they felt “kind of devastating and sad.” Provided other students actually take advantage of the increased options for activities (zumba, kickboxing and a five-kilometer walk on the campus), students seem to be assenting that, while disappointing, the decision is sound.
Along with the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, Spelman is only the second college to decide to leave the NCAA in the past ten years. A community college, Texarkana College, decided to eliminate athletic programs last year, saving more than $170,000 as a result.
College Athletics: Pros and Cons
While only a percentage of students are athletes, college and university athletics programs do often have a good chunk of a school’s budget allocated to them. You could argue that the disproportionate funding per student evens out, as sports programs are thought to attract prospective students and alumni dollars and (should a school’s teams perform well), the chance for national recognition at events such as the NCAA basketball tournament.
Sports are also simply a reason that some students attend college at all, thanks to scholarships — though, based on the student athletes I’ve taught, there can be quite a trade-off. Being on a sports team can be like working at a full-time job while being a full-time student. Athletes of course have to attend regular practices and compete, often at far-off venues, all while (often) maintaining a certain GPA. Fearful of losing a scholarship, students often cannot but go along with whatever a coach requires. There are benefits, though: the athletes at the small university I teach at receive far more academic advising and tutoring than most students and quite a few do graduate.
Along with the criminal conviction of Sandusky, college and university athletic programs have not been stranger to scandals. Just a few weeks ago, Mike Rice, the basketball coach af New Jersey’s state university, Rutgers, was fired after videos revealed that he had called his players gay slurs and physically abused them by throwing basketballs at them. Reports about student athletes taking “gut” courses and even having others do their academic work for them have not been uncommon.
College sports programs were created with the idea of nurturing both the minds and bodies of students, with the goal of making them well-rounded individuals. Given the routine reports about rates of diabetes, obesity and other health problems in Americans, should other colleges and universities say good-bye to athletics programs to foster life-long wellness in all their students?
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