PENNING: Why are college sports so dang important?

This has been an exciting week in college sports, especially for those of us who live in Michigan.
Apr 11, 2013


We saw one of our own universities go all the way to the championship game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I can’t deny my own excitement. I’ve been a Michigan fan since I was a kid. That was when my dad first was watching sports on TV — it may have been football at the time — and Michigan was a powerhouse in those days. I was hooked.

I became a fan of Michigan just because they got lots of attention when I first paid attention to sports.          

Other than that, I have no real reason to be a Michigan fan. No one in my family ever attended college there. As for me, I have degrees from Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Michigan State universities. I now teach at Grand Valley State University.         

People who know me will know that I have cheered for Michigan, especially in football, over the years. So when they see me sporting a green-and-white MSU hat or sweatshirt, they look at me funny and ask me questions. Some who don’t know me but are partisan Michigan fans ask me why I would sport the green and white.          

That’s when I remind them that college is about education, not sports. My affinity to Michigan State University is due to the years of hard but satisfactory work I put in there to earn my Ph.D. It doesn’t hurt that they have been doing well on the gridiron and basketball court, or that basketball coach Tom Izzo has a summer place in the area. I saw him once at a local grocery store and was tempted to loft a cantaloupe into my cart from three-point range to impress him.

But seriously, college is for education. Sports is called “extra-curricular” for a reason. But our society seems to treat sports as the main thing.          

The obsession with college sports is a phenomenon unique in the United States. When I taught on faculty exchange at a college in France, I noticed the school had no athletic facilities, or team mascot and logo emblazoned on hats and shirts and sweatpants.

A Canadian student in my doctoral program at MSU told the story of driving to Lansing from her home in Ontario to begin her studies. The customs agent at the border asked her, “Are you a Spartan or a Wolverine?” She was paralyzed with fear and had no idea what he was asking.

In Canada, the colleges don’t have teams and mascots either. Sports are played in community leagues.          

As a taxpayer and a professor concerned about our state universities, I am always pained to read about athletes for a Michigan university who leave college early for a professional league. In some respect, that’s exciting. But it seems to violate the principle of a sports scholarship — to help a young person get a college education.

Our universities should not be treated as a minor league sports franchise to aid the professional sports teams in identifying their next stars.          

I have been concerned about this for years, even as far back as my undergraduate days. I remember when a candidate running for re-election visited the campus in Mount Pleasant and, when asked what concerned me as a student, I told him to think about legislation mandating that scholarship athletes who go pro early return their scholarship funds to an account for non-athletes who demonstrate academic potential. He said he would “look into it.”          

We’re already seeing that this week in the coverage of the NCAA final. There has been discussion of the games, of course. But the backstory since the final has been about whether this or that sophomore will go pro or stay in school. Sophomore?

I know a lot of sophomores. They haven’t learned enough yet. Yes, the money is tempting, and the years of playing time in pro sports are short, so a young person may want to jump on an opportunity to play at the top level. But for that same reason, they may want to think about getting a degree and setting themself up for a life after sports.          

In my dozen years of teaching full-time, I’ve had lots of athletes in class. Only one of them ever went pro. That may be because we’re Division II, but then again you need to re-watch Spike Lee’s “Hoop Dreams” to remember that the number of pro athletes nationwide is significantly smaller than the number of college athletes.          

The one I knew who went pro was actually a good student. A quiet kid who sat in the back row, he wasn’t an A student, but nevertheless turned in good work and paid attention. I was most impressed when, after he was drafted by an NFL team, he contacted a colleague of mine from his new home out west and arranged to complete his final three credits in an independent study so that he could complete his degree in the off-season.

There may me more stories like that. It’s too bad the media does not stress the academic achievements of college athletes more, to the satisfaction of citizens like me, and as an example to younger athletes in high school.          

At the end of the day, there will always be sports in college in the U.S. I don’t mind that, and actually do enjoy it. But I would hope our collective perspective would change.

One way to do that is to consider that if a college announced it was canceling all of its classes, people would wonder why it still exists at all. But if a college announced the elimination of sports, there might be complaints, but the central mission would not be affected.

— By Tim Penning, whose columns and other thoughts can be read on his PierPoints blog:



Sports are important because they are fun entertainment and it's great to see people work hard at a talent that they possess and become successful. As parents, why do we stand in the rain soaking wet, freezing watching our kids play lacrosse? Because it's fun and if they are enjoying themselves, we are happy.


You are right and well said. I have 3 college athletes in my family. Two have degrees, one of them will be going on to grad school, and the third just completing his red shirt year. Of the two that have their degrees, one had an agreement with his coach, if he was not scheduled to pitch on an away game, he would remain at home to attend class. The other changed her primary sport to another because the practice time allowed for more classroom time.


College sports are hugely entertaining, particularly during playoff time, and it's refreshing to watch athletes compete for their teammates and the love of the game. No doubt many of them are looking toward a pro career, though few will make that leap. Pro sports, on the other hand, is rife with strutting, overpaid goons who often think they are something other than athletes, gifted as they are. I like the idea about college athletes paying back their scholarships if they abandon ship early. Maybe I am just an envious geek, but at least I catch more fish than they do.


Sports have kept my family close, assisted in teaching my children how to compete, how to be fair and honest, how to win graciously, and how to lose with dignity. It has kept my family healthy with self confidence and personal awareness. It has taught my children and grandchildren how to always strive to be better in all things. It has also taught them how to care and understand with compassion those that aren't as gifted, but try none the less.

"I can’t deny my own excitement. I’ve been a Michigan fan since I was a kid. That was when my dad first was watching sports on TV"

Do you think the author was closer to his Dad because of sports? Yes, I think this is what makes college, and all sports for that matter, very important.


LOL, now your just bragging. "Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopher’s salary". –Patrick F. McManus


LOL yourself you winged master; and I am damn proud! Everybody is a philosopher, and has a philosophy; it's deciding on the correct one for the individual that counts. People that select the wrong one generally are screwing things up royally; can you say DC?


Nobody can go wrong following the sage words of Patrick McManus. He was the best, and I miss his columns in OL and Field and Stream. Not bragging, Wing, just plain truth. Starting tomorrow, I'm laid off for at least six weeks and those fish don't stand a chance! Not sure how the wifie and kids will eat, though, or whether the bank will mind a missed mortgage payment.


Manistee this weekend. Ah, renewel in nature now that's dang important.


Post a Comment

Log in to your account to post comments here and on other stories, galleries and polls. Share your thoughts and reply to comments posted by others. Don't have an account on Create a new account today to get started.