I want nerdy athletes

The Vanguard recently published an editorial bemoaning the lack of connection between our athletes and the rest of the school, saying that we lack school spirit.

The Vanguard recently published an editorial bemoaning the lack of connection between our athletes and the rest of the school, saying that we lack school spirit. Last year, we lost our wrestling team because of academic progress rate (APR) issues that go beyond wrestling and that, if not resolved, could cost our athletics even more in the future. I think I have a solution to both problems. It’s a little convoluted, but bear with me.

The easy explanation for the lack of students attending sporting events is that we don’t win enough of them. The logic goes that if our sports teams were amazing, we’d be all over them. I disagree. School spirit is an issue of pride: You go to sporting events to support your athletes because you’re proud of them. But I am—and I think much of this school is—only so impressed by displays of physical prowess. We’re an odd bunch here at Portland State, and we won’t be won over with traditional tactics like chocolate, flowers and game-winning touchdowns alone.

Here is where we get back to academics. We love our nerds here in Portland. If you want to make us proud of our athletes, start by making them the smartest damn athletes in the league. You could get people to go to events just for the opportunity to brag about it. Imagine crowds of people at a basketball game carrying signs that read, “3.5: That’s not a score, that’s our team’s average GPA.” That’s the holy grail of Portland culture: it’s weird and it highlights how smart we are.

Not to mention, we really don’t have other options. Our football and basketball teams are both facing penalties as a result of low APR scores, including limits on practice time for basketball and limits on scholarships for both programs. If we don’t put additional resources into improving our athletes’ academic performance, their athletic performance won’t matter because the programs will be hamstrung by penalties.

I suspect there are two things that have prevented this from happening already, and they are slowing current efforts to encourage our athletes to be nerds. One is a cultural issue, an issue of the norms that guide athletics, not only here but also nationwide. An article in USA Today almost a year ago entitled “College athletes studies guided toward ‘major in eligibility'” noted: “Some athletes say they have pursued, or have been steered to, degree programs that helped keep them eligible for sports but didn’t prepare them for post-sports careers.”

So, even as the policies around athletes’ academic progress get stricter, the tendency to think of athletes as performers first, and students a distant second or third, seems to lead sports programs to try to game the system instead of supporting academic achievement.

The second issue is more straightforward: We don’t have any extra resources to throw at tutoring and advising, so the money’s going to have to come from existing parts of athletics.

My vote is to get the money from coaches’ salaries, specifically from the part of their salaries paid for with student fee money. According the Student Fee Committee’s Web site, the current academic advisor for athletics is paid $35,617, while our head football coach was allocated $158,400 from student fees, and the basketball coach was allocated $116,604.

Reduce both those allocations to the $80,753 that the women’s basketball coach—whose athletes aren’t facing any academic penalties, by the way—is allocated, and you have $113,498. That’s enough to pay three more advisors. It gets us one step on the way to a program we can be proud of, and it makes it clear that our priority is to support our athletes’ academic progress first and athletic prowess second.