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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher

Holland raises alarm about college athletics

East Carolina AD Terry Holland, pictured at a baseball game last season, advocates reigning in the excesses in college sports and lessening the non-academic burdens placed on student-athletes.

(Photo: W.A. Myatt)

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

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It’s the dream of thousands of young athletes, the kids pouring endless hours into travel ball and private instructors and going to great lengths to catch the eye of college recruiters. For many young people and their parents, there is no greater goal than becoming an NCAA Division I student-athlete.

But as a parent of kids who love sports, I have been thinking differently about that big dream lately. The question nags me a bit: Are kids who win that coveted college scholarship actually robbing themselves of the best parts of the collegiate experience?

Early this month Sports Illustrated ran an intriguing article about social activism among student-athletes. The piece explored the history of athletes as campus or political activists and noted that such bold stands are increasingly rare, possibly because student-athletes keep such a regimented schedule that they are unable to really connect with their university community or its causes.

In the story, University of Virginia Political and Social Thought professor Michael Smith says, “We're selling these kids a bad deal. They're doing a job here — full-time athletics. To pretend otherwise is to engage in denial. They're on an island within a university. A subset of the staff is paid highly to get them through, but it's not about engaging their minds with the outside world. They lead a regimented life, no time to loaf, to think, to read a book. It's a precious four years of a human life when you acquire the habit of inquiry, when you acquire your intellectual capital. We have to ask ourselves, why do we do this? To fill the endless demand for cable TV programming? Are athletes really in college or in some quasi-factory? We've shrunk them."

To be sure, Smith might be overstating the problem, but he raises an interesting point that shouldn’t be far from any athletic administrator’s mind. It’s a perspective that illuminates the issues in the academic integrity controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a recent report found issues of fraud and poor oversight in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

With the heat on the university two hours west, East Carolina conducted a study of its own to make sure Pirate student athletes weren’t being treated differently than their non-athlete counterparts in the classroom. The study, which was released two weeks ago, found no cases of academic fraud or lowered standards on the ECU campus.

That study, which is being supported by the work of a 12-member committee of ECU professors, is good news for alumni and students of East Carolina, whether they are athletes or not. But the broader question is whether student-athletes have the opportunity for a rich university experience, and in both the academic and social arenas Pirate student-athletes have no better advocate than ECU athletic director Terry Holland.

Holland has spent more than 50 years on college campuses as an athlete, coach or administrator, and he is uniquely positioned not only to comment on the excesses of this era but also to push for change. He is quick to say that his ideas on how to fix what’s broken in college sports don’t come from him alone, but from others who share his experience and concern.

The foremost reform, as Holland sees it, is to require every student-athlete to spend a year in residence at their college before they start competition. Such a move would undoubtedly raise the ire of coaches who want to use talented young recruits right away, but Holland believes that it would give students an invaluable on-ramp to the school that will shape them in so many ways.

“Give them a full year without the pressure of traveling to far off places to “perform” for their university,” Holland said. “This would allow athletes to learn about the academic, social, and other opportunities available at that institution that could change their lives forever, particularly since such a small number can count on athletics providing a living — much less providing the ability to make a difference in the world.”

Holland is quick to condemn the “dollar culture” that has made student-athletes cogs in an elaborate profit-making machine. The freshman year of ineligibility would help put athletics in their proper place by ensuring that students find their academic footing before introducing practices, conditioning, film study and travel to away games.

Another platform of Holland’s is those taxing road trips; he advocates eliminating or greatly restricting games and tournaments that would require student-athletes to miss class. When coaches and athletic directors schedule long trips that eat into class time, they send a mixed message, he said.

Thankfully, Holland is not alone in his views, but his voice of reason does seem to be drowned out by the hype of big-time college athletics at times. At East Carolina, we are fortunate that he has brought his wisdom and honesty to his position at the helm of the athletic department. Anyone with a young athlete who still holds up that big dream should hope against hope that his voice is heard and heeded.

Holland is frank: “Hopefully, we can all come to our senses before we follow the dollars to disaster,” he said. "The signs are all around us — the embarrassing agony of the various rules violations and the lack of common sense in decision making by otherwise intelligent and caring individuals are not coincidental.

“We have lost our way while following false prophets.  If we do not make our young people our number one priority, then our nation will fail and eventually fall.  Given the popularity of athletics today, universities have been handed a golden opportunity to show leadership and common sense — if they fail to take advantage of this opportunity then we will all be the worse for their cowardly decision to allow the world to lead them, instead of vice-versa.”

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08/01/2012 03:09 AM

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