Column: Basketball union vote gives Dartmouth room to dream


For the Valley News

Published: 03-15-2024 10:03 AM

Finally, a well-known American college can act like a college.

Now that Dartmouth’s men’s basketball team has voted to unionize, and the college has countered that “the students on the men’s basketball team are not in any way employed by Dartmouth,” the college can carry that decision — that realization? — a few steps farther.

Now that Dartmouth has the attention of every news outlet from The Athletic to the AP, from ESPN to Inside Higher Education, it could take a step that would make headlines around the world.

More important, it could take a step that would undo the damage that college sports do to American colleges and universities. And I’m not even referring to the fact that, according to a 2023 PBS NewsHour report, “with the exception of a small number of schools, athletic expenses surpass revenues at the overwhelming majority of Division I programs.”

I’m talking about the fact that the commitments to sports that most colleges find themselves forced to support are just plain foolish.

They’re even more foolish than the fact that most professional athletes of all sorts earn somewhere between several hundred thousand and $50 million a year. That’s foolish, but if Americans are willing to spend that much money to watch a spheroid be moved from one place to another, that’s their business.

But the business of colleges is simple: to provide a broad and deep education for people who have the skills and knowledge to profit from and an interest in receiving such an education. The business of colleges is not to entertain alumni and students, to attract the attention of potential students by winning this game or that, to prepare budding athletes for professional sports. The business of colleges has nothing to do with sports.

What an opportunity Dartmouth has. In these days when colleges and universities are forced — for a variety of reasons — to rethink everything from what majors they’ll offer to the scholarships they can provide to how many administrators they need, why not review the place of sports in their academic community?

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Why not consider just dropping intercollegiate sports from their offerings.

Why not just offer academic classes taught by knowledgeable academics to academically inclined students?

Why not just educate people in things they can learn from books and on videos, from lectures and discussions and studies abroad?

Sure, house them and feed them so they can come from far away. Provide scholarships for those who seem likely to benefit from the education the institution offers but simply can’t afford it. Offer intramural sports for young men and women for whom playing sports makes them healthier, happier and more amenable to learning.

But no more half-billion-dollar stadiums. No more $3 million head football coach salaries. No more spending eight times more per athlete than some colleges spend on academics for full-time students, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

So, what am I suggesting Dartmouth do? I’m suggesting that it do the same thing it did as it studied the impact on low-income students of having eliminated standardized tests.

I’m suggesting that Dartmouth ask itself questions like the ones I’m posing, questions about education, about admissions, about costs and benefits — about the business of college.

And I’m hoping that if Dartmouth does this, it’ll find that as sexy as successful college athletic programs may be, they really don’t belong in an academic setting.

Intramural programs certainly make sense. Spending some money on such programs also makes sense.

But the distraction from the central job of colleges and universities — to educate young people — seems to have been lost in some shuffle.

It’s time that Dartmouth — as fine a college as it is — become a trendsetter, and help America’s colleges and universities take a close look at the business they’re supposed to be in.

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant who lives in Chester, Vt.