These are tumultuous times in college athletics - an industry of which I could not be prouder due to the inspiring colleagues and student-athletes I’ve joined forces with during professional stops at Arizona State, Penn State, Syracuse and West Virginia. As associate athletic director for student services at WVU, I have never been more excited to be a part of a tremendous staff and lead student-athletes through these difficult times. As Albert Einsten said, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Education is defined as the act or process of acquiring knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment and preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life (www.dictionary.com). The marriage of athletics and higher education, student and athlete, has been debated throughout history, but the debate has intensified recently with the Ed O’Bannon trial and unionization threats at Northwestern. Critics begin to question the STUDENT-athlete experience; especially related to high-profile, revenue-producing, football and men’s basketball programs.
I approach this debate holistically, ponder the definition of education and ask myself, ‘Are universities educating student-athletes and preparing them for an intellectually mature life?’ EDUCATORS (i.e. professors, coaches, pastors, parents) possess an opportunity to establish culture. Teenagers with unique backgrounds, skill sets, awareness and motivation select universities for specialized reasons. Carnegie Mellon is ranked as one of the top theatre schools in the country. Similar to recruited athletes, I surmise Carnegie Mellon recruits incredibly talented actors.
Universities, including collegiate athletic departments, should remain hubs of critical thinking that promote self-development. Integrated correctly, universities, in partnership with athletic departments, create an educational culture that holistically prepares young people successfully for the “real-world”.
Today, impressive student-athletes excel in academics and sport. Academic All-Americans are celebrated, academic awards banquets commence annually and professors continually communicate positive feedback regarding the performance of student-athletes in courses. Often, student-athletes are the most competitive, dedicated and conscientious students in class due to their innate desire to compete in all facets of life. In my 10+ years in student-athlete development the “jock” stereotype has significantly declined in my opinion. NCAA graduation rates have improved and NCAA APR requirements have placed needed emphasis on the “real-time” academic performance of recruited student-athletes.
Thus, the student-athlete model is far from broken. So, instead of succumbing to instant gratification and paying STUDENT-athletes, let’s focus on increasing the value of education we provide. Employers who call my office seek leaders with high character, integrity, passion and competence. Rarely do I get asked to provide a list of only biomechanical engineering majors. The hiring landscape is changing, “Hire character, Train skill.” It’s time we place more value and appreciation on the STUDENT-athlete experience versus chipping away at its reputation.
Our charge at WVU will be to continue to develop cutting-edge ways to educate student-athletes. Life lessons as students in the classroom and on the field will equip the next generation of Mountaineer alums more than a monetary check. Our performance as educators will be critiqued on lives changed versus checks cut. Our athletics organization is dedicated to providing the best educational experience possible in the classroom, on the practice field and in the Morgantown community to our 500+ Mountaineer student-athlete scholars. The countless scholar-athletes I’ve worked with over the years provide testament – the STUDENT-Athlete model is far from broken. Our WVU office of Student-Athlete Academic Services is dedicated to educating STUDENT-Athletes. Our established culture will continue to demand competitive discipline in the classroom as well as the field.
Brady W. Rourke is West Virginia University's Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Services