Sports conference discusses role of athletics at the University

By Margo Levy, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 16, 2014

Students and faculty gathered on the main floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library on Friday and Saturday to discuss a topic that has stirred debate across campus this week: intercollegiate sports.

The two-day conference — co-hosted by the Department of Comparative Literature, the LSA Theme Semester, the School of Kinesiology, the University’s Office of Research, Rackham Graduate School and several departments within LSA — featured keynote addresses alongside specialized panels covering a variety of disciplines, including economics, well-being, education and ethics.

The conference came as the University faces key decisions about the future of its athletics programs and closely follows University President Mark Schlissel’s candid statements regarding the state of athletics with the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs last Monday

“We admit students who aren’t as qualified, and it’s probably the kids that we admit that can’t honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year,” Schlissel said Monday.

He later qualified his remarks in an interview with The Michigan Daily, clarifying that students are admitted to the University based on their expected ability to succeed in its academic environment.

Event organizers said the opportune scheduling was coincidental, as planning for the conference had been underway for many months.

English Prof. Anne Curzan, the University’s faculty athletics representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Big Ten conference, played a major part in bringing such a conference to the University. Curzan also works as one of the leaders of LSA’s Theme Semester “Sport and the University.”

Her role as faculty liaison to the University Athletic Department was a major topic of conversation at last Monday’s SACUA meeting, in which Schlissel stated that the department “often tries to keep her at arm’s length.” In his interview with the Daily, Schlissel said his comments were an overstatement and clarified that Curzan has full access to student-athletes.

Curzan approached Comparative Literature Prof. Yago Colás last year to discuss the possible production of a conference to assess the values of sport to national universities.

Based on his experience studying and writing about the culture of sports, Colás was a logical candidate to organize the conference. He has traditionally taught a seminar-style class at the University each winter titled The Cultures of Basketball, which is popular among athletes and non-athletes alike.

Colás said he supported Schlissel’s statements regarding University athletics, adding that he feels the negative reactions to the statement detracted from Schlissel’s larger goal of improving the department’s connection to the University.

“I appreciate that he is thinking critically about sports at Michigan and seems to have a will to try to make sure that we have our sports programs serve the educational mission of the University — I share that goal with him,” Colás said. “I think — probably out of inexperience, perhaps, or a lack of familiarity with the culture here — he kind of painted too broad a brush, and was overly general.

“Unfortunately I think that has created a kind of backlash of criticism which has caused the impulse behind his remarks to be overlooked,” he added.

Colás said he envisioned the conference as an interdisciplinary discussion. For that reason, he saw it as only logical to ask two professors from two very different disciplines to help co-host the event with him.

“What is particularly of interest to me was to bring together humanists and social scientists,” said Comparative Literature Prof. Silke-Maria Weineck, a conference co-organizer. “So just the fact that this is co-sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the School of Kinesiology, I think is a huge success right in itself.”

Throughout the conference, there were no direct suggestions that intercollegiate sports should be eliminated, but within each panel, concerns were raised as to whether sports are being incorporated in the most efficient way. However, the conference was not designed to think of solutions, but rather to foster thoughtful discussions.

A Saturday panel focusing on education featured Colás along with former Michigan basketball player Jimmy King, a member of the “Fab Five,” and Psychology Prof. Robert Sellers. A question and answer segment followed the panel.

While Colás discussed his experience teaching about the topic of sports, King reflected on his time at the University as a student-athlete.

Colás noted that at the beginning of his course it is impossible to ignore the divide between athletes and non-athletes.

“The students who are not basketball players, including many who are athletes in other sports, appear starstruck to varying degrees,” Colás said. “Unlike those athletes from other sports, the basketball players seem shy and almost suspicious, or at least cautious … Perhaps they are aware of their status in the eyes of other students; aware, I mean, that they are, on our campus anyway, public figures who must weigh their words and actions carefully.”

“Perhaps they have internalized, or at least sensitized, to the common public view that they are somehow not ‘real’ students,” Colás added. “All in all, that first day feels tense to me, fraught with division and a kind of defensive mutual wariness, that strikes me as emblematic, if not symptomatic of the strain that our model of intercollegiate athletics, and the social values it expresses, can place on education.”

As the course progressed, Colás said he was thrilled with the apparent decline in divisions between students based on their status at the University.

King is no stranger to this disconnect that Colás described. Reflecting on his time on campus, he believes that it is the University’s responsibility to break away from the barriers that have been passed down for generations.

“There is no one person in the classroom that is superior to the other when it comes to recognition of being a basketball player or football player or any kind of athlete,” King said. “When we recognize that, and we acknowledge that, and we truly operate from that mindset, we will be better off as a community as a whole.”