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Wisconsin should make football a major

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Along with basketball, hockey, volleyball...

It’s time for football to become a major at Wisconsin.

The same goes for basketball, hockey, volleyball, soccer, and all the other sports.

Asking the question whether athletes should be able to major in their sport has been a thought experiment for a while. After the North Carolina student-athlete academic scandal a few years back, even The New York Times joined the conversation.

Josh Rosen was right. Big-time sports and school don’t go together. At least not as currently constituted. By nature of their team commitments, student-athletes in major Division I programs are not student-athletes. They are athlete-students. They have to be. And we need to stop pretending (1) that is not the case and (2) that it is a bad thing.

Among others, Florida State professor David Pargman has been outspoken in advocating making sports into “performance” majors. He is exactly correct. It’s time to start treating sports like the arts.

At Wisconsin, students can get degrees in Art, Dance, Theatre, and Music, among other creative disciplines, each with a variety of sub-disciplines and degree types. UW recognizes, as world-class universities across the globe have, that arts should have a presence in the academy and that there is both an art and a science to the creative arts. It’s time to acknowledge the same for sport.

There is no appreciable difference in the skill and training required for arts from the skill and training required for sport. The ways those skills and that training manifest themselves differ, certainly. But if the university is going to make millions off of sport and the university community is going to benefit from hours upon hours of entertainment, athletic gifts should be nurtured and valued by the academy just as the arts are.

Athlete-students dedicate hundreds of hours annually to training and practices and games. A Sport major with concentration in a specific sport would take some of the academic load off of their shoulders and allow them to gain credit towards the thing they spend the bulk of their time, energy and focus on. The thing, frankly, that brought most of them to Madison in the first place.

Some have argued that Sport would be a useless major. As an undergraduate Theatre major (at a “golden” Milwaukee-based Catholic institution of higher learning) who also managed a second major in a humanity (English—it’s a shock, I know), I am happy to report that it is possible to eat and maintain shelter over one’s head with a non-traditional academic major.

In any event, a number of Division I athletes are simply shepherded into majors that will allow them to maintain eligibility already. It happens in every university, even schools with high academic standards like Wisconsin.

An academic program built around the sports athlete-students play would allow schools to drop the charade and let athlete-students build their academic careers around their talents and passions. All of this, for an outcome that would not be substantially dissimilar to the one that happens already: a college degree (which, if the never-pay-the-athletes crowd is to be believed, is the whole point of the endeavor).

I am unconvinced by the argument that it would lead to academic fraud. Academic fraud is already prevalent in Division I athletics. If you think otherwise, you’re not paying attention (for those living on Saturn over the past decade, examples can be found here, here, here, and here). I cannot imagine fraud getting worse by putting the academic focus of athlete-students on areas where they have skill and interest.

The question of whether non-athlete-students could be able to major in Sport is, in my opinion, irrelevant to the discussion of whether such a major should exist. I am confident individual schools can figure it out. Even if the answer was yes, it wouldn’t mean everyone makes the team (sorry, Drew Hamm). In my personal experience, there were plenty of guys and gals who tried out for plays who didn’t get cast.

Once upon a time, noted philosopher and Badger-killer Cardale Jones rather infamously said, “We ain’t come here to play school.” It’s time to change that.