In the beginning, Danyelle Carter had only one thought: I'm going to die. The 7 a.m. boot camp workout class at Spelman College is a muscle-testing, lung-battering trial for even the fittest. And Carter feels no shame in admitting that for most of her young life, she has been far from fit.
Last year, Carter says, she weighed 340 pounds. She grew up in the Bahamas and South Florida, and she learned to eat and eat and eat. Her close-knit Caribbean upbringing centered on family, and family meant food: plenty of it, all the time. If a handful of rice was good, two handfuls were better. "And everything was fried, dripping with grease," she says. Carter studied hard in school, earning an associates degree from Miami Dade College and, obeying her mother's orders, took classes to swap her native lilt for her current TV-anchor diction. But being a girl, nobody expected her to run or lift weights or play a sport. Inactivity was the rule, healthy role models the exception. High school gym class? "It was kind of like, ?Here's a basketball, and if you use if for an hour a day it will help your heart.'" When Carter arrived in Georgia in September, a walk across the impeccably kept, historically black, all-women's campus inspired dread. It gets hot in Atlanta. It's hotter when you're more than 300 pounds.
The college announced it was dropping all intercollegiate sports at the end of this
But Carter is a sister of Spelman, and the sisterhood strives to do extraordinary things. Last November, the college announced it was dropping all intercollegiate sports at the end of this academic year, the first school in a decade to leave the NCAA. True to its motto of "A Choice to Change the World," Spelman is choosing to move $1 million a year previously budgeted for varsity sports into what leaders call a "Wellness Revolution" for all students-pouring resources into exercise classes and nutrition counseling and intramurals.
Carter jumped two-footed into Spelman's young wellness program last fall before she was even enrolled. Awaiting a transfer, she wasn't officially admitted until January. That didn't stop her or Spelman from changing her life. Carter studied all the fitness and nutrition information Spelman had to offer, and even attended campus fitness classes. She tried tai chi and Zumba, and befriended the treadmill. Within a few months, she figured she was ready for some stronger medicine, so she signed up for the boot camp in January. It hurt. More than once, she remembers thinking, One more burpee, one more lunge, and my heart's giving out. It never did.
Danyelle Carter says she now weighs 220, losing more than 25 pounds since the start of the year. She runs nearly every day. Sometimes, when she's stressed out from studying at 2 a.m., she'll jog six laps-or two miles-around the Spelman Oval, past Rockefeller Hall's stained glass and the flowery alumna arch that only graduates may walk through. She swore off cake, quit eating cereal at night and leaves the candy alone. "I love tofu now," she says. And she made peace with boot camp. Even when mired in the worst part of the workout, called 21 Down-21 pushups, then 21 crunches, then 20 of each, then 19, 18, and so on, with no rest between sets-Carter reminds herself of her mantra: Pain is weakness leaving the body.
This is how revolutions are born. And Spelman's may be a link in a chain that one day leaves the NCAA, as well as the rest of our hypercompetitive, over-selective, winner-take-all interscholastic sports system, as dead as the tsar of all the Russias.
Our great nation was just inundated with the Caligula-worthy circus that is the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament. College kids who won't see a classroom for weeks perform hard, physical labor (for free, at least as far as the IRS knows) on behalf of an American audience that doesn't give a rat's ass whether players can read so long as they convert some timely threes, cover the spread and bust someone else's bracket. The tournament epitomizes what our century-old interscholastic athletics system is all about. March Madness-a tiny, televised group of elites moving at high speeds to entertain great, couch-clinging masses that don't move at all-is the way sports lives now.
Meanwhile, Danyelle Carter might just be the student athlete of the future. A future marked not by madness, but by common sense. One where the goal is not a championship today, but lifelong play, and where the measure of success is not maximum revenue, but a minimum level of health. Spelman College is doing something remarkable. Instead of spending seven figures a year on a few dozen varsity athletes, Spelman will expand its wellness program, funding fitness for everyone on campus.
several institutions are investigating whether they, too, can dump sports
Most of the sports world missed Spelman's November announcement, instead mulling the one-year anniversary of the Jerry Sandusky indictment. For those who noticed, the move came as a shock. Kassandra Jolley, Spelman's vice president for development, took a call from a fellow fundraiser at another school when the news broke. "Good luck with your alums," the person on the other line snickered.
Not everyone is laughing. The little college is fielding other calls, from officials at other campuses whose eyes apparently don't mist over when they hear "One Shining Moment." These colleges want out of the NCAA, too. Spelman politely declines to name names, but several institutions are investigating whether they, too, can dump sports. Some are co-ed schools, and not all are in Division III. A few told Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum, "We are moving down this road." It's a different Road to Atlanta than the one CBS hypes.
Think of Division I sports as a pro wrestler in his late 30s. At the top of his earning power, he struts around the ring, a huge, bronzed, theatrical monster. He lives like a Russian oligarch thanks to CBS and Turner's $10 billion March Madness deal and a brand new contract for a football playoff from ESPN, reportedly worth $5.6 billion. Terrifying yet semi-divine, he does whatever he wants, invincible in the eyes of his ardent supporters. Fortified with steroids, he profits off violence and exploitation. In his kingdom there are many mansions, in places like Eugene and Gainesville. But look underneath that papery skin and the bulbous fast-twitch armor, and the gladiator's body with the Roman senator's head is riddled with disease, decay, and corruption. In a dozen or so years, the bill will come due on those same steroids, that same high living, and the colossal tumorous rate of growth. His brawn turned flabby, his countenance sickly, his boastful strut reduced to a wheezing, coughing limp, he'll wish he were dead. If he's not dead already.
signs of disease in scholastic sports are everywhere
The signs of disease in American scholastic sports are everywhere. The sleaze revealed itself multiple times over the last few years, with college football taking most of the bows thanks to scandals at Ohio State, North Carolina, Miami and Penn State. But it isn?t just football, as former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice could tell you, most likely with a homophobic slur. And it isn't just colleges. Vying for attention with tattoo-parlor shenanigans, bogus courses, hookers on yachts and pedophilia is the Steubenville, Ohio, high school football team, two of whom were convicted of raping an incoherent 16-year-old girl last summer-while friends took pictures and video.
None of this dampens hard-core fans' enthusiasm for the games, though, or stops the flow of money. The system's contradictions reach an apex every year with March Madness. Sponsors such as Capital One, an official "Corporate Champion" of the NCAA, pay millions of dollars and run non-stop ads touting the partnership. It's a fitting marriage. The big bank was ordered to cough up $210 million in restitution and fines last summer when the federal government caught it using deceptive marketing tactics. What's in your wallet, indeed?
Meanwhile, the NCAA runs non-stop ads of its own lauding its "student athletes," performers invariably forced to emphasize the athlete facet. Nnemkadi Ogwumike, an outstanding high-school student and basketball player, told me in an interview during her high school years that she wanted a school where she could pursue a medical career. When I caught up with her for a different story during her junior year at Stanford, the demands of big-time women's hoops had forced her to change course. She switched her major from human biology to psychology because pre-med work too often conflicted with sports commitments. True, Ogwumike is making a living in Poland and the WNBA as a professional player now, and can conceivably go back and still pursue a medical career. But this was at Stanford, a place lauded for supposedly doing things "the right way," even as it was revealed two years ago that athletes could select from an "easy class list" unavailable to other students.
This shouldn't surprise anyone. In school-based sports, ethical breaches are a feature, not a bug. Sports Illustrated's February cover story, "Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?" points to three decades of University of Idaho research showing athletes score lower than other students in moral reasoning surveys. And reform? It's a punch line. Every 10 years or so, the well-intentioned Knight Commission issues dire reports on the NCAA's need to police itself, which are mostly ignored by administrators and coaches. The 2001 volume nobly states: "Together, we created today's disgraceful environment. Only by acting together can we clean it up." Among the people suggesting the cleanup? Ethical paragons such as ex-Penn State President Graham Spanier (indicted in the Sandusky scandal); that college's former basketball coach, Rene Portland (see: homophobe, disgraced); and losing vice presidential candidate John Edwards (impregnated mistress while wife was dying of cancer).
The NCAA itself, founded to police campus sports corruption, is these days about as reliable a witness for the prosecution as a South African cop. Remember Nevin Shapiro? He's the Miami booster sitting in prison for committing epic financial fraud, who in 2011 told Yahoo! Sports how he treated Hurricane football players to cash payments, TVs, huge parties and, yes, hookers on his yacht. He's the reason the NCAA is investigating The U. But it turns out one of the NCAA's investigators wrote a pre-sentencing letter of support for Shapiro, encouraging the judge to go easy on him, because the association might hire Shapiro as a "consultant." That AP scoop revealed just one of a series of deals NCAA investigators made with Shapiro, like giving him a prepaid cell phone, that make a mockery of the "extra-benefits" investigation.
Granted, big-time college sports generate a lot of money, and nobody goes into it without knowing that every once in awhile they're going to get their hair a little mussed, ethically speaking. But sports still provide health benefits, right?
Right? Well ...
Evidence of football's role in brain damage, even on the high-school level, seems to arrive with every new batch of neuro-scientific journals. Similar data accumulate like tau on an NFL player's cortex for other school-sponsored sports, including soccer and hockey. But in the wake of Junior Seau's suicide, this was the year famous football players began saying they don't want their sons playing their game. This was also the year the NCAA did little to address the crisis. But that's every year.
varsity programs devour time, facilities and money for fitness that could go to the student body as a whole
Meanwhile, as costs soar for school-based elite sports, youth obesity has never been higher. Why? Partly because on every level, including preps, varsity programs devour time, facilities and money for fitness that could go to the student body as a whole, even as student bodies grow a whole lot fatter. In Arizona, where 28 percent of kids are either overweight or obese, and where 58 percent of adolescents report never attending a PE class, the state's head high school sports executive saw his total pay rise to $193,000 in 2010.
The broader public has begun to notice all this. Over the past 18 months, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine and Sports Illustrated have all weighed in with major pieces crying for reforms of major college sports, demanding that the system find some way to compensate the talent that creates the billion-dollar television revenues, and that sells millions of expensive tickets, trinkets and pieces of licensed apparel every year.
Everybody knows the system is broken in all kinds of ways, especially the athletes. "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS," 19-year-old Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones famously tweeted last fall.
The union of sports and education is failing. But the above examples point to ethical lapses and moral breaches. Few in the industry, and fewer fans, care about that.
College sports don't produce much elite talent any more
There's something else though, something they don't want to admit and may not be able to dismiss so easily, a dirty little secret coaches all know and whisper about, but try to hide from rich alums and the sports hungry public: College and prep sports don't produce much elite talent any more. These days, capitalism develops children into pros. Individual sports, like tennis? Long gone. Basketball? It's all about summer travel teams. Baseball? Year-round travel teams. But what about football? Johnny Manziel won his Heisman thanks in large part to QB guru George Whitfield's private-sector summer camp, not his high school experience. And SEC fans? Be afraid, be very afraid, of this winter's Jadeveon Clowney drama. One of these years, a great college player, or several, will skip playing in their junior seasons to save their bodies for the NFL, the way they skip prom now to jump into spring football on your campuses.
Schools? They. Don't. Matter.
This isn't new. The trend first gained momentum in the early 1980s, when the coaching and training demands of elite young tennis players and gymnasts no longer meshed with a scholastic schedule. Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Mary Lou Retton didn't need scholastic competition, and soon no elites in those sports did. That model has spread quietly ever since to the point where most interscholastic sports are a vestigial sideshow. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant never went to college, and Jayson Heyward of the Braves and Bryce Harper of the Nationals, two of the best young outfielders in the National League, owe nothing of their prowess to schools. Harper quit school early and took a GED rather than serve his full sentence of high school ball.
Even in track and field, which, like football, relies on colleges to incubate talent, elites are opting out. Earlier this month, 18-year-old Ajee Wilson won the U.S. indoor championships at 800 meters in what should have been her freshman year of college; instead of working for free, she turned pro and signed a shoe deal with Adidas. Then there's 16-year-old Mary Cain. The dynamic distance runner from Bronxville, N.Y., shattered decades-old high school records in the mile and two mile this winter. The high school junior runs unattached against professionals, and beats them, while being coached from afar by Oregon-based Alberto Salazar. Like Wilson, Cain just won the U.S. indoor title in the mile. The two promising runners follow in the spike-steps of Allyson Felix, whose reward for skipping college competition was three gold sprint medals at the London Olympics and three world 200-meter titles over the past decade. "My coach and my whole team, they're all professional coaches, but they still make it so much fun coming to these races," Cain said after her victory. "We were hanging out at dinner and having a lot of good laughs, and I just love it." Sounds like she's pining for that school sports camaraderie.
Add to the mix U.S. Soccer, which actively discourages the elite players in its development academy from playing on high school teams, and you've subtracted school from the equation of every great athlete in every sport except football. "The academy is not for everybody," says Tony Lepore, the academy's scouting director. "It's for the players who want to reach their full potential, who want to play at the next level, who want to pursue excellence."
More and more, those seeking to fulfill their potential have little use for scholastic sports, which is why after a brief controversy over theno-school-soccer policy, few care. "We knew it would be a cultural shift," Lepore says. "But frankly, people have moved on."
American schools refuse to do the same, pouring uncalculated millions of dollars, much of it taxpayer money, into interscholastic sports that serve a small number of students, but keep adults employed. In major colleges, that money, as well as cash from blanket student athletic fees, builds mammoth stadiums and amenity-filled arenas for corporate ticket holders; buys fancy editing software for coaches to scout opponents and prospects; and creates academic tutoring centers for athletes, who like young Mr. Jones from The Ohio State University once did, betray little yearning for class. In high schools, sports force cash-strapped schools to choose between music courses, science labs and bus rides to state championship games.
Interscholastic sports is a failed state. Its reason for existence is developing healthy students and elite athletes; it does neither at a high cost. On the heels of March Madness, it's the perfect time to ask the question Spelman College asked: Why are we doing this?
WHAT LIES BENEATH
No place else in the world does sports like the United States
No place else in the world does sports like the United States. As Tom Farrey points out in his 2008 book, "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children," sports and schools connected through a historical accident. A bunch of rich, nervous American males thought the country's kids soft, undisciplined and ill suited to the demands of modern commerce. With gangs of teenagers wreaking criminal havoc on New York City streets, industrialists with names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan-egged on by the vigorous young president, Teddy Roosevelt-financed the fledgling Public Schools Athletic League, the first conference of its kind, in 1903. The goal was simple: Give boys structured play to burn off energy and teach them obeisance to authority needed on America's factory floors.
The idea spread like a sweatshop fire, filling Madison Square Garden to capacity for the first PSAL basketball championship, then sparking similar leagues in cities across the nation. As America prospered and its school populations grew over the next 60 years, interscholastic sports lodged itself in the education system, creating a way of life not only in hoops-crazed New York, but seeding football hotbeds in places like Alabama and Texas, whose gleaming high school and university sports factories today surpass anything Andrew Carnegie could have imagined.
school sports in poorer regions of the country, especially inner cities, have been decimated
As happened with America's heavy industry, though, changing economic winds battered the sports production line, creating the equivalent of scholastic sports rust belts. Since the 1980s, school sports in poorer regions of the country, especially inner cities, have been decimated, killing participation for all but a few in a shrinking number of sports. Nobody knows the exact extent of the damage, because nobody keeps track. Megan Bartlett of the Up2Us Foundation, a group devoted to funding youth recreation in underserved areas, says the U.S. Education Department produces no statistics on scholastic sports programs or expenditures. This much is certain, though: School sports for the many are already dead. Middle school programs are steadily shrinking, and freshman teams no longer exist at a majority of schools. Meanwhile, the corrosion of prep sports is spreading as school budgetary pressures increase throughout the country
That may not be a bad thing. Etta Kralovec, in her 2003 book "Schools That Do Too Much," cites sports as a time suck and cash drain from what schools are supposed to do. "School-sponsored sports, especially in our high schools," Kralovec writes, "serve a small number of students, distract from valuable teacher time, and waste money and time that could be better spent on other resources more relevant to teaching, the central mission of schools."
Still, tradition and motivated supporters provide political incentives for school boards to hold sports hostage, saying, "Hold the line, or the football team gets it." Yet as districts cut academic classes and top performing teachers desert because of pay freezes, it's tough to justify school sports for the few. For the past three decades, pay-to-play fees have become a Band-Aid solution to keep programs afloat. But that practice excludes poor youths-the whole focus of interscholastic sports in the first place.
The scholastic sports programs that hang on often do more harm than good, says Diana Cutaia, a former athletic director at Division III Wheelock College in Massachusetts. Too many coaches play only to win, and not for the sake of playing. "This win-at-all costs model, where the end result is most important, it's wrong," Cutaia says. She now runs Coaching Peace Consulting, which advises athletic administrators and coaches on improving sportsmanship and skill development.
Once, nobody needed a consultant to teach sportsmanship and fundamentals. John Gerdy remembers. The son of a New Jersey high school football coach, Gerdy went on to become Davidson basketball's all-time leading scorer in the 1970s; he's now second behind Stephen Curry. "I'm a product of the system," says Gerdy, author of "Air Ball: American Education's Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics."
"I think the NCAA folds. There's no way they'll be able to pay off what they'll have to pay off."
That system no longer exists. "To be a high school coach," Gerdy says, "you used to have to buy into the academic culture." All of his dad's assistants were teachers. Now, statistics show only about half of current high school coaches teach-and their mission to win games may not connect with the school's mission to foster learning. So, Gerdy asks, "What really is the educational return on investment here?"
Gerdy believes that football, in particular, has outgrown its usefulness in an economy based on rapid adjustments to change and entrepreneurial ingenuity. A symptom: Coaches call every play, so kids don't learn to manage their own games. Beyond that, Gerdy thinks the sport sits on a time bomb: head injuries. "How long are school districts going to be able to afford insurance for football?"
Basketball, too, may soon deal with an explosive issue, one that some experts believe could obliterate college sports: Ed O'Bannon's class action lawsuit against the NCAA. O'Bannon was one of the most highly touted high school players of the early 1990s. He overcame a severe knee injury as a freshman and led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA crown as a senior. After a journeyman nine-year pro career, O'Bannon was coaching high school hoops and selling cars in Las Vegas when he noticed his likeness being used in an NCAA-licensed video game. He sued for back royalties in 2009, and he's been joined by several other prominent former college stars, among them Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell. More than that, his attorneys have included current college players as part of the injured class in the case. If O'Bannon wins his case, slated for trial in 2014, he would open the door for untold players to claim untold revenues from the association.
If that happens, says Bruce Svare, a University at Albany professor and director of the National Institute for Sports Reform: "I think the NCAA folds. There's absolutely no way they'll be able to pay off what they'll have to pay off."
"Not sustainable." Both Svare and Gerdy use that phrase to describe the current system. The evidence is only a Google search-or a trip to Maryland-away. In the past year, the University of Maryland cut seven varsity sports (although moving to the Big Ten will allow the school to reinstate those sports), while Towson University dropped men's soccer and baseball. "The NCAA is at some point going to collapse under its own weight," Svare says. He's quick to add a caveat. Thanks to the giant audience for college football and the TV money already in the college hoops system, the rich we will always have with us. College football is a way of life in parts of the South and Midwest; it won't die unless the whole sport does. Even if O'Bannon & Co. destroy the NCAA, "You'll probably be left with 50 or 60 schools that will be able to stick with college sports," Svare believes, "and they'll form some sort of new organization."
just 22 of 227 NCAA Division I programs showed a profit off college sports in 2011
For the time being, the billion-dollar TV contracts entice schools to believe that if they build a large enough program, maybe they'll be one of those last 60, or more likely, 64. That's why conference realignments happen every year; athletic departments are chasing the dragon of monster revenues. Yet only a tiny sliver of programs, as few as two-dozen schools a year, according to USA Today's annual college sports revenue survey, make money off college sports. Read that again. USA Today reported just 22 of 227 NCAA Division I programs showed a profit off college sports in 2011. And that's often with hidden benefits, like tax-exempt construction bonds, unavailable to private-sector businesses.
In January, the Sports Business Journal reported Tennessee's athletic department has $200 million in debt and less than $2 million in reserve, a hole so deep the AD suspended the program's $7 million annual contribution to UT's general fund. Read that again. That's Tennessee, by all measures, a major college program. The argument that universities will lose alumni contributions if they shut down sports rings hollow when you're talking about that kind of debt. If they can't stay in the black on Rocky Top, where can they?
In the private sector, say reformers. Private, non-scholastic European clubs like FC Barcelona and Manchester United find and develop children from the time they're 12 years old. When the best prospects turn pro at 16, the clubs sign them for their teams or sell their rights on the transfer market. There is no sanctimony about education or amateurism. There is only business. "Our system needs to be like Europe's," Gerdy says. "Privatized."
The logical conclusion? Get sports out of schools. Everywhere.
The logical conclusion? Get sports out of schools. Everywhere.
Even in the purest part of the NCAA, Division III, where sports may still enhance education, escalating costs crimp the mission. That's what happened to Spelman. Sports never mattered much on the campus where the exterior shots for the TV series "A Different World" were filmed in the 1980s. The Spelman sisterhood values academic achievement, global community service, and the occasional party at neighboring all-male Morehouse-not tailgating. But Spelman found its athletic department caught in a conference realignment schism two years ago.
The NCAA requires at least seven colleges in its sanctioned conferences, but Spelman's Great South Athletic Conference found itself down to four in late 2011 after three members bolted. Moving to another conference would require far greater travel and a renovation of Spelman's 1950s-era gymnasium. So Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum began asking questions.
How many students participated in varsity sports? Answer: 80 out of 2,100.
How many students participated in the campus' five-year-old Wellness Program? Answer: 300. "But they were crunched for space," Tatum says. Varsity athletics controlled prime gym time. Without varsity sports, Spelman could meet the fitness needs for every student. Watching a Spelman varsity basketball game in February of 2012, Tatum posed another question:
How many of the women on the floor would play basketball after graduation? Answer: None professionally, and not many more recreationally.
"I thought of all the women I know and the kinds of physical activity they engage in," says Tatum, a treadmill fanatic whose FitBit step counter recently showed her with 5,932 steps toward her daily goal of 10,000-before a 10 a.m. interview. "Getting together after work to play team sports is not what they do."
They challenge long-held assumptions with easily
Tatum will tell you she's no sports expert. Yet her simple questions have a Bill James quality: They challenge long-held assumptions with easily accessed data. And her challenges can be taken further. Much further. For instance, Spelman's participation rate-80 athletes of 2,100 students, or 4 percent-sounds low, and it is. But it's twice the rate of the NCAA a whole, where only one of every 45 students takes part in intercollegiate athletics.
The college president put those answers together with some nagging statistics. The Surgeon General stated in 2004 that obesity could shorten life expectancy and quality of life for this generation of young people. Research shows African-American women are the least active of any demographic group in the U.S., too often entering adulthood overweight or obese, at high risk for Type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and breast cancer.
Tatum kept seeing the evidence first-hand. She recalls attending a funeral for an alumna in her early 30s, who died alone in her home of respiratory issues. "I'm no physician," Tatum says, "but it seemed pretty clear to me her health situation was aggravated by the fact she was so overweight." Every spring at Spelman's convocation, the 10-year reunion class has a candle lighting ceremony for alumnae who've died since graduating, a surprising number from breast cancer or complications from diabetes or heart disease. "Think about that," Tatum says. "Those are 30 year olds, and there's always a candle being lit."
Tatum had an epiphany. "A little light bulb went on," she says. "We need to flip this script. We need to take those resources that were are investing in a very small number of people for a limited benefit, and reinvest it in a campus-wide initiative that would improve the long-term health outcomes of all our students."
Tatum adopted a 21st century goal for the restructured athletics department: Fitness literacy
In the year since, Tatum and her college flipped, shredded and repurposed the script, creating a whole new version of sports on campus. Citing the origins of the school, founded on bringing literacy to 19th century black women, Tatum adopted a 21st century goal for the restructured athletics department: Fitness literacy.
Spelman already had cornerstones in place, with required physical education courses and the growing Wellness Program-which offers nutrition counseling and a fitness menu with everything belly dancing and yoga classes, to courses with titles like Hula Fitness, Black Girls Run! and Hips and Heels, a workout in, yes, stilettos. (To make sure they're not damaging young lumbar regions, students are encouraged to complement the high-heel fitness with Ab Attack, a core workout.) The big event this spring, with apologies to the NCAA tournament: April's Founder's Day 5K race, where students who've never run before can go from the couch to the finish line via a months-long training program.
These programs are destined to grow as Spelman sheds its NCAA flab. The million dollars a year that once went to Spelmans's seven varsity teams will now fund more dance, running and swimming courses, and for the first time ever, campus intramural leagues.
Meanwhile, Spelman already planned to expand or replace Read Hall, the school's antiquated gym, whose hoops court falls four feet short of the regulation length of 94 feet. Now, instead of trying to build something to NCAA specifications, Facilities Management Director Art Frazier has a different mission: fulfilling student demand for a "bigger, lighter, airier fitness space."
The college is embracing the change, though it's not easy. Athletic Director Germaine McCauley calls the departure from the NCAA "bittersweet." Varsity tennis player Kemi Oyewole, who will lose her senior season of college competition next year, admits she was "taken aback" when she heard her college career was over. "I'm going to miss it quite a lot," she says.
But Oyewole, a mathematics major who plans to pursue a doctorate in economics, can add. She delivers a quick cost-benefit analysis of college athletics. "The conversation about education as a whole, from Barack Obama down to a financial aid officer, will always come around to the fact that these rising costs of tuition and things are not sustainable," she says. "We're going to reach a point where some things are going to have to go. I'm not sure athletics is going to be the first thing, but I'm sure that at smaller schools those discussions will start coming up. And at the largest schools, since they have the largest costs, (cutting sports) would actually incur a lot of savings."
Her analysis is spot on. Because every Spelman official has a story like Kassandra Jolley's. They see colleagues at a conference, or receive an email or phone call from another school, and they're asked, "How could you drop sports?" sometimes followed up with, "How can we?"
Spelman isn't proselytizing. It doesn't believe every campus should make the same choice it has. But it's time for another logical conclusion. NCAA institutions serve 19.7 million students, and another 75 million or so kids go to school from pre-K to high school; the effects on public health of moving money for competitive school sports into broad-based fitness and intramural programs are likely enormous.
"One size doesn't fit all," Tatum says. "Certainly, the big schools, the Michigans of the world, find their athletics generate revenue, and that's important to them." But for most colleges, she adds, sports generate no revenue, only expenses. "As there's more pressure across the higher ed landscape to contain costs, this could be a way for people to address the holistic needs of student development," Tatum says. "That's what we're up to."
WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY
While much of the rest of America spent the last month poring over brackets, Danyelle Carter will stay obsessed with marbles. For every pound she loses, she transfers a marble from one jar into another one. "I just watch the marbles build up."
She's chosen to change the world by changing herselfDanyelle Carter before and after she lost over 100 pounds.
She's chosen to change the world by changing herself. "Being 340 is scary," she says. "I never ever want to go back there. You can feel when your heart is saying, ?Enough.' When you lay down and you feel the pressure on your chest, and you have someone tell you that at your age, you should not have pre-hypertension, that's fear. Nothing mobilizes a person more than fear."
She recalls wondering how she ever got so big. When she saw that number, for the first time in her life, she loathed herself. "I held myself accountable," she says, "and said I have to fix it. What Spelman taught me was I didn't have to fix it by myself. You have a community that's cheering for you." She heard cheers a couple of weeks ago when she finished the Founder?s Day 5K?and saw a congratulatory tweet from President Tatum. She also feels constant encouragement from nutrition counselors, trainers, fellow students, people on her Facebook group telling her she had a great week, even if she just maintained her weight. She's not cutting down nets, but for Carter there's no better feeling.
Except maybe when this soldier in a revolution is done with boot camp. Over email, she describes how she feels at the end of the workout.
I grit my teeth and I finish, and I carry my morning accomplishment throughout the day reminding myself that whether it is me adopting a healthier lifestyle, or academics, I am a champion. This champion, me, can now do the squat-and-throw, push-ups, swings, and shuttle runs without quitting or self-loathing. Because I am, I am, I am a champion.
This is what the future of sports in our schools can look like. One shining moment, every day, for all.
About the Author
Luke Cyphers teaches journalism at SUNY Plattsburgh and spent most of the past 25 years covering sports for the New York Daily News and ESPN The Magazine.