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College Football Obsession: Sending the Wrong Academic Message?

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This past weekend was the kickoff for the college football season. It seemed that every social media newsfeed was full of people cheering on their alma maters or sending shout outs to their favorite college mascots. The start of football season on the professional level and every tier below it has become an iconic fall tradition of American culture. This glorification of a sport, particularly in the case of college athletes, put priorities in the wrong spot though.

Does our collective obsession with college football and other collegiate sports give K-12 kids the wrong idea about the purpose of higher education?

Let's face it; athleticism is at least partially genetic. People love to mention the story of Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team as an example of motivation for anyone who faces adversity. No disrespect to Mike, but his raw athletic ability had to be apparent during his high school years. The fact that he was cut from the varsity team was likely more a result of relying on that talent, and not putting in the effort to hone it. Once he realized what a lot of practice and persistence, paired with unmatched talent, could mean in his life he was able to excel at what he was already good at doing.

Call me cynical, but not every kid who is cut from a sports team has the ability to be like Mike by just putting his nose to the grindstone.

The same goes for college athletes, many of whom are put on a pedestal by peers, coaches and parents. Yes the feats of the human body are admirable but should a young adult with athletic ability be treated better by an institution of higher learning than one whose strengths are in engineering or the life sciences? The promise of fame and fortune (achieved after a college career if NCAA rules are followed) make a "career" as a college athlete look glamorous. But what is lost from an academic standpoint?

Colleges and universities do not elevate athletes in principle, of course. There is no bylaw that mandates the best athletes be given advantages or treated better than everyone else on campus. But money talks. The highest grossing college football program is at the University of Texas and it brings in an astonishing $90 million annually to the school. You can add the Ohio State University, the University of Florida and the University of Notre Dame to the short list of college football programs that consistently bring in revenue in the tens of millions to their schools.

The direct financial impact is not the only way football, and other popular athletic programs, aid in a school's bottom line. A strong athletic program brings in more future students and rallies boosters under a common cause. To call college football a cash cow is an understatement; these programs are more like the blue whales of university revenue outside of actual tuition.

So students athletes like Aaron Hernandez are allowed to act suspiciously, getting into violent bar fights, as long as they are part of an epic college team headlined by Tim Tebow. Years later when Hernandez is accused of involvement in multiple murders, and no longer a college football player, people claim that there was always something "odd" about him. So why did he get a pass?

Of course most college athletes walk the line. They hone their athletic abilities while showing respect to academics and the reputation of their schools. They should be applauded for their accomplishments but not to the point that academics take on a role of secondary importance on campus. It's not the fault of the athletes, most of whom are just young adults. It is the fault of the school officials and supporters that send the message from grade school that sports culture is greater than academics.

What do you say? Does the cultural obsession with college sports send younger students the wrong message about the purpose of higher education?

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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