I should probably disclose upfront that I love college sports, particularly football and basketball. I love football’s kickoff weekend, March Madness, and everything in between. There’s something special that happens on the Friday before home football games, when everyone wears school colors or when the basketball conference tournament starts and you are filled with anticipation that your team still has a chance at an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
At the same time, though, I think there is something strange about being a college sports fan when working in higher education. Through lawsuits and efforts for recognition, the college sports landscape is changing before our eyes and the debates keep raging on about a variety of issues. When should a student-athlete be allowed to leave school to “go pro” in a sport, and what is the role of a college or university in preparing that individual for this career? Should a student-athlete be financially compensated for their athletic contributions to the school, or is the opportunity for a college degree enough?
For me, sports used to be something to watch for a couple hours on Saturday and Sunday and then talk about with family and friends during the week. I did not play sports in high school or college, nor have I ever worked for a campus athletics office. I knew a few student-athletes when I was an undergraduate student, but only as acquaintances. I did not have a personal connection to sports, so it was easy to think about these debates in an abstract sense, rather than thinking about how they personally affect the people involved.
As a student affairs professional, though, I have begun feeling increasingly conflicted as fan of Division I football and men’s basketball. I still have the same debates with friends, but I have found it is really easy to turn these debates into moral arguments about athletics and education, as opposed to what is best for student-athletes. As someone who works in higher education, I agree with the argument that completing a bachelor’s degree is a great investment for sustained personal and professional development, especially for the majority of student-athletes who will not go on to play professional sports.
By the same token, though, I struggle with the idea of telling student-athletes their dream career is probably not a reality. Student-athletes have worked for years to develop their athletic skills, leading to them being recruited by a college or university and playing in large stadiums, maybe even on national television. In almost any other field, student affairs professionals would encourage students to pursue this dream and capitalize on their hard work. For student-athletes, though, there is a message that they need to earn a degree (in something other than playing sports), and plan for a future in which they do not play sports professionally.
I experience cognitive dissonance when I see the integral role of athletics within the identity of many colleges and universities (e.g., increased expenditures on stadiums, practice facilities, and coaches’ salaries, as well as the promotion of sporting events as a part of the collegiate and alumni experience), and then see parameters put on the role sports should play in the identities of the student-athletes at these institutions.
Every year, debates arise about the role of athletics in higher education. I’m working hard to remind myself of who is at the center of these debates: our students. As various legal battles change the landscape of college sports, I know I need to work on being more intentional about considering how these changes are not just about institutions and fans. These changes have significant effects on the lives and opportunities of our student-athletes and I am trying to learn how to better balance being a fan of and an advocate for this group of students.
 I realize not every student-athlete wants to be professional athlete; however, a recent Inside Higher Ed article indicates, within Division I, about ¾ of men’s basketball players and half of football players believe it is at least “somewhat likely” they will play their sports professionally. I think this is an important statistic for student affairs professionals to remember when advising student-athletes.