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Robert Abrams
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Reflections on College Sports Scholarships and Possible Strategic Implications for Dance

by Robert Abrams
March 24, 2008
In a recent series of articles (including: "Expectations Lose to Reality of Sports Scholarships", Bill Pennington, New York Times, 3/10/2008, p. A1, and "It's Not an Adventure, It's a Job", Bill Pennington, New York Times, 3/12/2008, p. D1), New York Times reporters have provided a valuable analysis on a gap that exists between common perceptions of the money available for college sports scholarships and the economic reality of what is truly available. The series also provides evidence that some students who do receive such scholarships think of their efforts on behalf of their sport and their school as a job.

These articles led to three thoughts, all of which would take a lot of work to implement.

First, what is the reality of college scholarships for dance? If we knew how much money was being devoted to dance scholarships, we could compare those numbers to the numbers developed by the NY Times regarding sports. The numbers would almost certainly not be favorable to dance, even taking into account the fact that significant sections of professional dance development does not go through colleges, but at least we would know where we stand. Those college alumni who care about dance and fundraising bragging rights could start booster clubs, raise lots of money, violate NCAA recruiting rules … Dance could become just like football and basketball at those sports powerhouse schools. (Okay, maybe we don't want to be exactly like sports.)

Second, while I would be the last person who would want to curtail some student's dream of competing in college in soccer, field hockey or running at any distance (I did run cross-country and track in high school), inaccurate economic expectations have a tendency to distort behavior in ways that are not healthy. In the case of sports, kids these days end up competing on travel teams that consume large amounts of money, detract from time that could be used for study, and in some cases lead kids to start taking steroids to get a competitive edge. It could be worse. I remember a study that was done while I was an undergraduate at Stanford that investigated economic incentives during the American Civil War. At that time, it was legal to pay someone to take your place if you were drafted into the Army. The problem was, as this study found, that people had inaccurate ideas of just how dangerous going into the Army was at that time. As a result, many people accepted payments that were not commensurate with the risks they were taking. It is not that travel teams and many of the other elements of high school sports these days are bad in and of themselves. For some students, the investment will be worth it, economically or otherwise, and they should push themselves as hard as they can in their chosen sport. But for some families, especially if their motivation is primarily driven by the hope of a large college scholarship, the investment in youth sports may not be the wisest choice.

If people were more realistic about how much money they might "earn" from a scholarship, they might make less investment in sports. This would reduce some of the current excesses in sports, but it would also divert resources to other areas. If we could raise the profile of dance scholarships, some of that freed up investment might migrate to dance. The sports industry is so vast that if student investment in sports declined by 1%, with part of that migrating to dance, the sports world probably wouldn't notice while it would have a large impact on dance.

Finally, whether a student has a scholarship to compete in sports or dance, there is the question of what status to grant their efforts. The students interviewed in the NY Times articles described their sport participation as a job. I can tell you from having been a graduate student that the university administrations do not view such students as employees and are not about to grant them benefits. It seems to me that if a student participates in a competitive sport (or dance company, or debate society, etc.), there is some amount of time that the student should put in just because he or she is interested in the activity. There is then an amount of time beyond this first level that the student should put in because it benefits school spirit. Anything beyond this second level should be regarded as work that benefits the university more than it benefits the student. Such work likely cuts into time the student should be studying, having a reasonable opportunity for a social life, and what ever else is regarded as part of the core of the college experience. Such students should be given time to complete their studies at the college's expense, even if they need to take an extra year because they devoted so much time to their sport during their first four years.

Do I realistically think that we can reform the excesses in sports, get most people to have a clear-eyed understanding of the sports scholarships that are available, and get them to divert educational investments into dance? No so much, but a theoretical framework doesn't always have to be totally practical to be useful.
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