Spreading the Word

If the educational side of athletics is part of your vision, consider making it well-known to all those around you—including your critics.

By Dr. Michael Vienna

Michael Vienna, Ph.D., is Director of Athletics at Salisbury State University. SSU finished 15th in the Sears Directors’ Cup Division III Final Standings for 2000-2001, and over 50 percent of its student-athletes qualified for Athletics Honor Roll (semester gpa of 3.0 or better).

Athletic Management, 13.5, August/September 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1305/ovoword.htm

Today, more than ever, many people question the role of athletics in an educational setting. From faculty members to taxpayers, there are those who view interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics as a necessary evil, or just plain evil, and a drain on the educational budget.

As athletic directors, we see the educational value of athletics on a daily basis. We watch student-athletes learn goal setting, teamwork, dedication, practice and determination, sacrifice, adherence to rules, and leadership through their sports participation.

So, how do we convince skeptics that athletics is a positive educational experience? It begins with making sure that your entire department understands the concepts behind educational athletics. And it also involves letting those on the outside know that this is your vision.

In order to achieve this, you need a clear mission, stating the educational value of sports in your school. You also need a game plan, outlining how the mission will be achieved. As administrators, we have to plan for most every aspect of our program if we want to be successful—why not document how athletics will be educational?

When this type of plan is clearly spelled out, coaches are more apt to believe it, upper level administrators are more apt to understand your direction, and faculty are more apt to feel athletics is a part of their world. This can help when seeking financial resources and in being accepted as part of the academic profession. The more we are recognized as part of the educational equation, the more power we have to grow our programs.

At Salisbury State University, we have chosen to articulate these ideas through four different written documents: a vision statement, a philosophy statement, operational goals, and learning outcomes. These four components link to the mission and philosophy of our institution and they reference education at every opportunity.

Our vision is “to be recognized as the Division III national model for intercollegiate athletics programs for the 21st Century by exemplifying the principles and practices of a winning athletics program with outstanding educational value and emphasis. We expect to achieve national eminence as an athletics program through commitment to the overall quality of the educational experience of the student-athlete, good sportsmanship, integrity, respect for others, and dedication to goals by staff and student-athletes.”

For our philosophy statement, we utilize one similar to that provided by the NCAA for Division III institutions, while also including institutional specifics. (See Sidebar, “Making a Statement” at the end of this article.) These philosophies should be the guiding factors for decisions made about the athletic department, its staff, and student-athletes. You can highlight the importance of these philosophies by pointing to them when decisions are announced, such as coaching hires or policy statements.

A department’s goals could and should include items related to the winning of contests and championships. However, they also should include items related to academics and education. Here are ours:

“The student-athletes’ academic performance should meet or exceed the level of the rest of the student body.

“The graduation and retention rates of student-athletes should meet or exceed the rest of the student body.

“The athletics program will produce student-athletes who exemplify good sportsmanship, integrity, respect for others, commitment and dedication to goals, and the ability to work as a valued member of a team.”

An annual report to the faculty and administration can highlight the department’s performance as measured by these goals, again emphasizing academic success over on-field victories.

Your athletics program should also establish a set of learning outcomes you expect a student-athlete to acquire as a result of participating in your program. For our program, I used portions of the text from “The Seven Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs,” which was published in the March/April 1998 issue of About Campus. Here are our principles, followed by how we plan to achieve each one.

• “Our athletics program is committed to engaging student-athletes in active learning. Active learning opportunities encourage experimentation, application, involvement, reflection, and advance more complex ways of thinking.”

As student-athletes progress through our programs, they will experiment with the skills and strategies coaches teach them and will have to apply those strategies and skills. Coaches should be helping student-athletes to reflect upon the success or failure of what was implemented, which will work to advance critical thinking skills.

• “Our athletics program helps students to develop coherent values and ethical standards. Student-athletes are challenged to identify, examine, and construct meaningful values for a life of learning and responsible citizenship.”

Coaches should be discussing with their athletes our societal values and ethical standards. If a player has not been a good citizen both inside and outside one’s school and sport, there should be a team consequence.

• “Our athletics program sets and communicates high expectations for learning. Student-athletes are given clear expectations regarding a wide range of experiences and competencies, including academic performance, individual and community responsibility, and commitment to team goals.”

We have academic standards that our athletes must meet and we ask our coaches to talk about the importance of academics. As far as community responsibility is concerned, we advocate that our teams be involved in some type of community service project. Commitment to goals and rules are self-explanatory in the athletic setting; however, we insist that coaches diligently state their expectations outside athletics as well and enforce the rules consistently.

• “Our athletics program forges educational partnerships that advance student-athlete learning. Collaboration with student-athletes, faculty, administrators, and others provides multiple perspectives on shared commitments and fosters healthy decision-making.”

Coaches and athletic administrators have to be partners with classroom teachers and parents. Often, by being aware of what a teacher needs or expects, a coach can have a huge influence in helping to academically motivate the student. Athletics personnel must recognize and cultivate this partnership. We should, whenever we can, present ourselves and our coaches as educators.

• “Our athletics program builds supportive and inclusive teams. Student-athlete learning occurs best in a safe and caring community that values diversity, promotes belonging, and demands social responsibility.”

Athletics is a great place to teach about diversity and the importance of everyone. There are numerous examples of how diversity barriers are broken down among teammates and communities as a direct result of an athletics team.

In conclusion, I know all of us believe there is educational value in our athletics programs. We must be able to articulate it, document it, defend it, and share it with our staff, colleagues, governing board, and community. If we can do this, our programs will continue to be valued as a critical component in the partnership of educating young men and women.

Making A Statement

At Salisbury State University, our philosophy statement mirrors one provided for Division III schools by the NCAA:

“Our university places the highest emphasis on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students’ academic programs. The athletics program, likewise, affirms academics as the highest priority in the life of student-athletes. In so doing, we seek to strengthen the integration of athletics program objectives with academic and developmental objectives.

“Recognizing that students have needs and interests that go beyond the scope of academic life, the University is committed to providing an intercollegiate athletics program consistent with those needs and interests. Recognizing, further, the positive impact of athletics participation on individual development, and consistent with the University’s mission, the athletics program seeks to encourage attitudes of integrity and fairness, respect for others and dedication to goals.”

We also include these two additional principals:

• “We place special importance on the impact of athletics on the participants, rather than on the spectators, and place greater emphasis on the internal constituency than on the general public and its entertainment needs.

• “We encourage the development of sportsmanship and positive societal attitudes in all constituents, including student-athletes, coaches, administrative personnel, and spectators.”