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Playing Devil's Advocate: Academics Take Precedence Over Athletics

Hugh ShannonContributor IMarch 4, 2010

397506 02: Former US President Bill Clinton (L) receives a Harvard football jersey from a student November 19, 2001 at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. At (R) is Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. Clinton spoke to Harvard students on the topics of globalization and politics in his first speech in the Boston area since leaving office. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Jacob Hickman, a three-year starting offensive lineman at Nebraska, was invited to Indianapolis this week to participate in the NFL combine.

Politely, he declined.

“I didn’t feel the need to continue playing," he said. "It just didn’t feel like it’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

Florida State safety Myron Rolle was asked during the combine how it felt to desert his team to pursue study overseas as a Rhodes Scholar. Rolle made national news missing the first half of a 2008 ACC game vs. Maryland to attend that interview.

There are eight academic institutions in the Northeast with less than 1,000 football players who made that very decision before they ever stepped onto a collegiate field. Somehow, those decisions get very little fanfare.

Outstanding athletic ability somehow overshadows the superior academic capabilities exhibited by Ivy League athletes. A spectacular athlete denies FBS schools for an Ivy education, and the collective head-scratching begins. An Ivy athlete gets drafted or signed in the NFL, and additional cranial massaging ensues.

The marvel that the media and fans show toward such decisions underestimates the value that these student athletes place on issues other than football—education, career, health, and more. As the NCAA likes to point out, 380,000 student athletes go pro in something other than sports.

This gets to the core of what seems to drive Ivy presidents and their decision-making regarding playoffs and additional football games. Someone needs to stand up to the status quo and state publicly and loudly that academics take center stage—that value is placed on academic achievement. Going pro in surgery, economics, or public administration is more important than safety, end, or punter.

Here comes the "devil's advocate" part to my previous proposal. I have to applaud this attitude—and, at a certain level, admire the steadfast (one could say stubborn) dedication to these principles in the face of opposition of public opinion—and at times, common logic. However, the world is too complicated for such “either/or” scenarios— which is why the art of compromise is such a valued commodity.

Will an additional football game irreparably tarnish 200-plus years of elite academic reputation? Can we not safely entrust the elite academic minds of our nation to be able to multitask with their extracurricular activities for an extra week or two?

If a compromise could be crafted that not only did not interfere with the academic schedule of exams but also provided additional playing opportunities—possibly helping to raise the profile of the league and leading to TV exposure and revenues—is it wise not to at least entertain an open discussion?

Playing devil’s advocate, I realize that the devil is in the details, but let’s get that discussion started.

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