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Q & A With Leading Sports Reformers

A League of Fans Special Feature

John Gerdy has been involved in sports virtually his entire life. The son of a high school football coach, Gerdy went on to become an outstanding basketball player for Davidson College. After a brief NBA tryout, Gerdy played professionally in the Continental Basketball Association. Following his basketball career, he went into athletic administration and spent three years with the NCAA and six years with the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Gerdy served as a visiting professor in sports administration at Ohio University, and has written several books, including his latest, Air Ball: American Education’s Failed Experiment With Elite Athletics. He is a long-time sports reformer, focusing on college athletics.

Ken Reed: What spurred you to become a sports reformer?

John Gerdy: What’s always intrigued me is the potential of athletics to be an educational tool. The potential of athletics in that regard is great. However, athletics have evolved to the point where the impact of sports has become more negative than positive. As a society, I think we’ve lost perspective on the role of athletics in our lives, and particularly in our schools.

KR: What concerns you most about high school and college sports?

JG: Today, athletics in our schools is increasingly about the end result – winning and money – rather than the process of education. As such, the potential of athletics as an educational tool has diminished greatly. We need a serious conversation in this country about what the proper role is for sports in education.

The most fundamental question is, “What shall the role of sports be in our educational system?” We’re heaping more and more money on football and basketball for entertainment purposes and pushing all the rest of the students to the sidelines – in the most obese society going! We need to get everyone in our schools participating in lifetime sports and other physical activities.

However, instead of increasing participation opportunities for all, were subsidizing football in our schools. That just doesn’t make sense, especially when you consider that the vast majority of football players will never participate in another game of football after high school.

We’re the only country on the planet where the responsibility of developing elite athletes and teams rests with educational institutions. Other countries focus on broad-based participation in schools.

KR: What’s your take on the state of college sports today?

JG: College sports are out of control. There’s almost a complete loss of perspective. It’s definitely more about winning and money than it is the process of education.

KR: How do you think the general public looks at athletics in our schools today?

JG: I think if you conducted a poll and asked questions such as ‘Do you think sports in our schools are out of control?’ and ‘Have we lost perspective?’ that you’d find a large majority of respondents would say ‘Yes.’

KR: What role should our institutions of higher education play in the national discussion on athletics in education?

JG: It’s about leadership. If there’s any institution in society that needs to be stand up and say education is more important than athletics, it has to be our universities. They have to provide leadership on athletics in education.

Our education system is in crisis. In this global economy, the only way we’re going to be successful as a country is to have a strong education system. Education has to be more important than athletics. But if you watch how some of our biggest universities act, you’d have to conclude that athletics are more important than education.

The whole country is watching our colleges and universities. Part of the mission of our universities is to provide leadership on important issues impacting society. They’re not doing that today when it comes to athletics in education.

KR: What needs to be done for athletics in our schools to work?

JG: There are three things you have to understand if educational institutions are going to sponsor athletics: 1) It has to be about the student participants first; 2) Coaches have to be first and foremost educators, not entrepreneurs or entertainers; and 3) Athletics has to be a part of and not apart from the educational institution.

At the college level, if we were to go to a need-based aid system and eliminate athletic scholarships — a Division III-type model — then I think it could work. Eliminating the athletic scholarship means eliminating the contract between the athlete and coach. That empowers the student and is a better system for education as well.

I believe athletics has the potential to be a tremendous tool in education if kept in perspective. But that’s a big “if.”

KR: Can college athletics survive the way things are going now?

JG: I don’t think so. I think at some point a judge somewhere will rule that these kids are really professional athletes and employees and should be eligible for worker’s compensation, etc. Or Congress will look at Division I athletics and determine that it’s clearly a highly commercial enterprise and pull the tax-exempt status from these athletic programs. Either event would be financially devastating for university athletic programs and would cause universities to pull back and put college athletics in their proper perspective.

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