Hardesty: Education and sports don’t mix – but they should

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Last week’s Round 2 on the seismic changes in college sports coming at us at warp speed and their adverse effects on mid-major schools like Kent State elicited some thought-provoking responses from readers.

And opened a Pandora’s Box of related issues.

To stay on point, I won’t get too far into the weeds on those issues, whose tentacles reach far and wide into the world of college athletics.

But one issue has been, is now, and always will be the 800-pound gorilla rampaging around every campus: academics.

One reader wrote to me saying in part that universities, particularly those housing blueblood athletic programs, “create fake courses, pressure teachers, and undermine academic integrity in order to slide the players through the system.”

It’s naive to believe otherwise, and enough institutions have been caught doing exactly that to leave no doubt that it’s going on. I’m not going to mention names, but I used to work with a guy who had a side gig writing papers for students who attended, shall we say, a local university. And none of them were athletes.

So it happens. Everywhere.

But it’s only a symptom of the disease, not the cause.

The real root of the problem, as tough as it is to swallow, is that we don’t value education in the United States as much as we say or think we do.

We pay lip service to it, but we don’t really mean it. Yes, that might be an overly cynical generalization, but here are some cold, hard facts to wrap your mind around, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:

• The United States ranks seventh on the list of Top 10 Most Educated Countries in the World in 2022. (According to the OECD, a country’s adult education level is defined by the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 64 who have completed some kind of tertiary education in the form of a two-year degree, four-year degree or vocational program.) So despite being home to some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world like Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the good ’ol US of A can’t crack the top five.

• A staggering 54% of the United States’ adult population has literacy below a sixth-grade level. In other words, over half of the adults in our country can’t read or write better than a child. Let that sink in.

• The OECD administers the Program for International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-old students around the world. It was last administered in 2018. In it, the U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science with a score of 502. That’s above the OECD average of 489, but nowhere near the top five countries in the world.

• The science results were glowing, however, compared to how U.S. students fared in math, where — brace yourself — they came in with a score of 478, below the OECD average of 489. That score ranks 30th — yes, 30th — in the world.

• Business Insider is even harsher, ranking the U.S. 38th in the world in math scores and 24th in science.

• According to University World News, of the United States’ 201 ranked universities in the latest QS World University Rankings (as of June 2022), 103 U.S. universities — or 51% — are in academic decline.

So we live in a country where half of the adults can’t read or write, our science education is so-so, our math skills border on inept, and over half of our colleges are getting worse.

That’s not sustainable.

So, then, what are we good at?

Making money.

According to OECD’s world rankings, the United States is second behind Luxembourg on its Countries with the Highest Salaries list. The average salary in the U.S. is $60,000 a year.

And that’s where college athletics come in. If you play football, basketball or baseball, your ultimate goal is to get to the NFL, NBA or MLB. The Promised Land of untold riches sits just beyond your college campus.

So when you have your eyes on the million-dollar prize, sitting in your dorm room hitting the books seems like an inefficient way to utilize your time when you instead could be hitting the weights, perfecting your swing or working on your jump shot and possibly trade that $60,000 for $10 million.

But the fact is, of the more than 460,000 NCAA student-athletes in the United States, fewer than 2% will go on to the professional level.

The odds are even bleaker when taken from the high school level: Less than 0.2% of all high school players will someday be drafted into the pros.

So in reality, getting an education is by far a college athlete’s best chance for future success, not anything they do on a field or court.

Yet only 46% of players in the NFL have college degrees, but that’s well ahead of the NBA’s 21%, which is well ahead of Major League Baseball’s 4.3%.

It’s a form of gambling, only the stakes are the highest possible: an athlete’s future. Too many bet on their talent, and far more often than not it comes up craps.

Much of this could be mitigated if the professional sports leagues would require a college degree for athletes to be eligible to play, but this will never happen. The second such a rule passed, it would be in court the next day. Every other sector of American industry can require an education, but not sports.

And there’s the problem. In our culture, sports have been separated from academics. They have next to nothing to do with getting an education. They run parallel to each other rather than intersect.

Education is devalued. And when pro sports leagues take athletes who have not gotten their degree, the message is loud and clear for kids in high school, middle school and even elementary school:

We don’t need an education if we’re good at sports.

When the fact of that matter is, for 99.98% of them, an education is the only chance they’ve got.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.