It is understandable that members of the Kansas University football team are focused on doing whatever they can to defeat the Texas A&M; team they will be playing tonight in Memorial Stadium.
They have been training and practicing for months to be in the best physical shape possible, and they have been coached on how best to compete with the Texas A&M; players.
In fact, most of the KU players have been playing football for many years. They were good enough that KU coaches recruited them to come to Mount Oread. They were given special athletic scholarships and, since arriving on campus, they have devoted hundreds of hours to preparing themselves to be good football players. The same can be said for those on basketball scholarships and those competing on other KU intercollegiate teams.
To enhance the chances of winning football games, the athletic department and the university hire a number of well-paid coaches to train and help players raise their skill levels.
It’s a business, a very big business with many positive, as well as some negative, payoffs.
Again, the players put tremendous emphasis on winning the games when, in fact, they are engaged in an even more important game: getting a good college education and graduating. In the game of “life,” this is far more important than winning a football game.
Using the KU football and basketball teams as an example, it is fair to say a sizable number of players would not be attending KU or possibly any other major university unless they were good athletes. Athletic scholarships have opened the door to a superb educational opportunity, and taking advantage of this experience should be the No. 1 goal of college athletes.
Granted, student athletes have an obligation to do their utmost to perform at a high level as football or basketball players, but it should be remembered they are identified as student athletes, with “student” assigned the highest priority.
Whether this is true or accurate in today’s Division I intercollegiate athletics scene is debatable, but that’s the way it is supposed to be.
Those on KU athletic scholarships receive far more help than other students: almost unlimited tutoring, support from athletic department people who regularly check with players’ teachers to see if they are attending classes and maintaining passing grades, good housing, medical care, a training table of unlimited quality foods, preferential enrollment times, tuition, etc.
Granted, there is a price to pay and this is the hundreds, more likely thousands, of hours of practice and training time and the physical beating a player absorbs.
A recent Bloomberg News report cited a Knight Commission study that showed athletic department spending increased 37.5 percent between 2005 and 2008 to a median average of $84,446 per athlete in 97 of 103 public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Meanwhile, university spending per student overall increased 20.5 percent to a median average of $13,349.
The Knight Commission report contained many other facts about intercollegiate athletics and the “untenable” escalation of budgets for the nation’s athletic departments.
The point of this column, however, is to point out that while winning a football or basketball game probably is the No. 1 priority for major college players, in the long run, the most important goal for the athletes should be to take advantage of the very special athletic scholarships that provide so many fringe benefits that average students don’t receive.
Winning on the football field or basketball court is important, but winning in the classroom is far more important.
Paul Buskirk heads KU’s tutoring program (Its official name is Student Support Services.) and he does an excellent job. A recent report noted that graduation percentages for KU athletes achieved new highs. This is good news, and Buskirk is committed to providing the best possible support services.
Hopefully he and his 15 full-time associates and 85 tutors are able to instill the importance of a college education into the minds and actions of the students rather than students thinking the only reason to try to do well on tests is to remain eligible in their respective sports.
There are two ways to measure the percentage of student athletes who graduate, and in both systems, KU scores high. In the “modified” plan, 77 percent of KU athletes graduated, and in the “federal rate,” 64 percent graduated. In the latter classification, if a KU athlete transfers to another university and does not graduate, it is counted against KU.
Buskirk and his associates are pleased with their program, as all KU alumni and fans should be, but they are trying to achieve even better records. Buskirk’s group is a valuable asset for student athletes, as well as for the university.
It should be noted that KU’s overall graduation rate is 61 percent.
A famous and highly successful KU basketball coach, the late Forrest “Phog” Allen, frequently was asked who he thought were his best players, or “starting five,” and he would answer, “Ask me in 15 years.”
He said his choices were always changing and, to a significant degree, he based that judgment on how they performed after their days on the basketball court. He thought good citizenship, professional achievements, community involvement and other such factors were integral components for a “successful” player.
It’s hoped KU athletes today and in the future will be successful while competing as Jayhawk athletes but also in the years following their graduation.
Four, five, even six years on a college campus go quickly, and it is important for student athletes — or any student — to make the most of those years, particularly in the classroom. A few will make it into professional sports, but the post-college earning power of student athletes, their level of participation in community activities and their general standard of living will depend, to a large degree, on their achievements in the classroom.
Let’s hope the Jayhawks win this evening, but let’s also hope the players continue winning in the classroom.