On Monday, April 4, Villanova was crowned the champion of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Every year this game is the culmination of the extreme hype of March Madness, during which people fill out brackets picking the winner of each matchup. Prizes are available for those in the top percentage of brackets, most of which are created through ESPN, CBS or Yahoo. This is all indicative of the extreme commercialization of the tournament.
But why must college sports be so commercialized? As a student athlete at Macalester, people often assume that athletics are my life, my passion. To a certain extent, that is true; athletics do take up a large portion of my time, and I constantly am pressured to perform at a high level. However, as a Division III athlete, I do not have to deal with this constant pressure of knowing that people will win or lose money off of my performance.
Division I athletes are just as much humans as the Division III athletes here at Macalester. The only difference is that most of them are more naturally gifted at sports. Commercializing them and making them objects for people to bet on not only entices them to perform well in their sport of choice at the expense of other disciplines (i.e. academics), but also gives them the knowledge that certain people’s livelihood actually depends on their performance. This problem is by no means confined to March Madness either, with ubiquitous betting on football bowl games and even regular season competitions.
Such an environment is unhealthy for a college student, whose focus should lie first and foremost with their studies. Even in Division I, most athletes will not turn professional after graduation, so it is extremely important that they are able to pay attention to their schoolwork while maintaining enjoyment of their sports.
In Division III, especially at Macalester, this point is extremely stressed among athletes, and focus remains with studies even when in the midst of a championship season. However, for Division I athletes, especially those in the premier sports of American football and basketball, the commercialization of college sports prevents these students from performing academically to the best of their abilities. For some of them, athletics is not a side commitment. Rather, it is a full time job masquerading as an extracurricular activity. This belief has become so internalized that many Division I athletes no longer treat their sport as an extracurricular in college, but rather treat college as an extracurricular to athletics, preventing them from learning academic material to the fullest extent possible.
This Division I culture is so ingrained into the American lifestyle that change will certainly not be easy. However, even incremental steps towards making classes the first priority for college athletes will go a long way. In addition to incentives for excellent athletic performance, performing well in the classroom and taking more difficult classes should be incentivized. Cut practices from the full time job that they currently are even by as little as 25 percent, and athletes will have over five hours more per week to devote to studies. Whatever the solution may be, we need to work towards changing the culture around Division I sports, away from an unhealthy culture to one focused on the student athletes’ well being.