I’m writing this column the day after a remarkable event. Each winter, the National Football Foundation holds a banquet to honor outstanding achievement associated with that sport—and this year, Duke claimed three honorees. Vice president and director of athletics Kevin White received the John L. Toner Award for excellence in athletics administration. An alumnus of the School of Medicine, Tom Catena M.D. ’92, was one of two recipients of the Gold Medal for his extraordinary humanitarian work as the sole doctor at the Mother of Mercy Hospital, the only surgical hospital in central Sudan. (Before medical school, Catena was an All-American football player at Brown University.) And David Helton, a senior who led the ACC with 10.4 tackles per game while maintaining a 3.64 GPA as a psychology major, was singled out from seventeen finalists to be awarded the 2014 William V. Campbell Trophy as the nation’s top scholar-athlete.
While this celebration began with football, it gives us a chance to think more broadly about the purpose of college sports.
In the last few years, intercollegiate athletics has been a subject of growing controversy. The influx of money through media contracts has assumed an influence in profound tension with the amateur ideal encoded in current NCAA regulations. In the last year, we’ve seen courts make surprising and provocative rulings that have weakened the NCAA’s limits on preventing remuneration of student-athletes and opened the door to unionization. At the same time, the so-called “power conferences” have been allowed to create some of their own rules.
Through this series of events, the entire system threatens to tip toward a version of college athletics that would be very different from anything we ever had in mind. It could lead to an unhealthy imbalance between universities’ investments in sports, especially revenue sports, and other priorities. It could lead to treating student athletic achievement principally as an economic commodity. It could drive a deep wedge between athletes and the rest of the student body, in which athletes are treated as high-paid elites—that is to say, professionals.
In the face of it all, some might be tempted to ask: Why don’t we just pull out of this business altogether?
To answer, I would present another side of the picture. In America, athletics and higher education have been linked since the mid-nineteenth century. Sports are part of the special character of American universities in which academic work and meaningful extracurricular activities support each other in powerful ways. At its best, athletics is a form of education.
Sports can teach things every successful adult needs to know. How to visualize high performance and embrace the discipline needed to reach it. How to try your best, fail, get up, and try again with renewed determination. How to work in teams to do things that no individual could accomplish alone. How to devise a strategy—and how to revise that strategy on the fly. When we cheer on our Blue Devils as a campus community, we absorb these values in spirit. And at Duke, our students’ lives are enriched by sports not only at the varsity level but also through club and intramural competition.
Undeniably, there is a version of college sports that is deeply antithetical to academics. But our pride is that Duke has always striven for the version in which athletics are a complement to education. Duke has a graduation success rate of 97 percent for varsity athletes, with fifteen teams achieving a 100 percent success rate. This year 495, or 77 percent, of Duke’s student-athletes made the ACC Honor Roll for academics; this record number placed Duke at the top of the conference for the twenty-sixth time out of the last twenty-seven years. David Helton is not an outlier but Duke’s third National Scholar-Athlete finalist in a row.
At a time when the landscape is in upheaval and athletics sometimes seems to be on trial, we’re proud of the Duke tradition of creating the conditions for our student-athletes to compete at a high level on the field (or on the court, or on the track, or in the pool) and thrive in the classroom. We see this as a time for Duke to renew our commitment to a model of athletic competition that does not detract from our academic mission but rather underscores and enhances its core values. Furthermore, Duke has a responsibility to take the lead in articulating this model and helping to move the national debate in a positive direction. There’s a way to get college sports wrong—but there’s also a way to get it right.