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The Athletic and Academic Dance

Posted on May 4th, 2010

Last week I experienced the ultimate “dance” that exists between athletics and academics.  We were not finished welcoming home the ODAC Champion softball team when we realized we had a major problem.  Three seniors on the team were scheduled to leave May 4 or 5 on their three week cross cultural experience, a requirement for graduation.  Two were headed to China and one to Morocco.

We would always like to avoid putting students in these situations – needing to choose between two very good things, both once-in-a-lifetime type events.  And we are often quick to take sides with comments like, “you can’t let your team down by not playing in the NCAA Tournament”, or “you can’t afford to lose the money invested in the cross cultural and delay graduation”.  We also are too quick to trying to place a value on each one and figure out which one is more of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

There are many stakeholders in this situation, including the students, parents, coaches, cross cultural leaders, administrators and teammates.  Time is of the essence.  And people solve problems in very different ways.  So who takes the lead?  Who resorts to “power plays”?  What posturing is going on?  How dow e frame the questions and find the solutions.

There is always an interesting “dance” between academics and athletics in every educational situation.  And it has been my experience that no matter the situation, athletics will nearly always appear to “get it’s way”.  For example if the high school baseball game is postponed on Tuesday due to weather, league rules will often dictate the re-scheduling process and if it is played on Wednesday and that was the day for band practice, the baseball players will probably miss band practice.  Very rarely is an athletic event canceled for another school event. Sports results are published daily, fine arts and academic events rarely get publicity.  Furthermore, participating in the NCAA Tournament has the potential for positive impact on the university as a whole.  Athletes are playing not only for themselves but for their school.  That doesn’t make it more important, but does add an interesting dimension to the discussions.

Unfortunately the discussions are often laced with “who’s more important” language.  What is ultimately important in life.  But those conversations are rarely helpful, but rather hurtful.  Both academic and athletic experiences have lasting life value for the students and students shouldn’t have to make decisions between academic and athletic pursuits.  We need to find the win-win situations.  I am grateful for those I work with at EMU in athletics and academics.  While we may have approached the problem solving differently, we were able to come up with the win-win situation we sought.

Coaches and athletic administrators need to work closely with professors and school administrators to avoid these situations, but when they occur, work diligently together for solutions.  We have to see the value in each others activities.  I’m happy to report that not only did we solve this delicate situation, but we are working on plans to avoid this in the future.

Athletics cannot stand alone – apart from academics.  Neither can academics stand alone – apart from athletics.  Both have their place in the lives of both the students and the university.  Silo building is easy but almost always hurts students.  Collaboration benefits the students and is a valuable skill to take from the college experience.  I have learned a lot.  I’m sure the students have learned a lot.  And hopefully all of us will be better for the experience. I’m confident that the next time any of us find ourselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”  the experiences of this past week will serve us well in navigating our way through that tough situation.  Oh the joys of athletic administration!

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