Today’s guest columnist is B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports business at Ohio University.
Last week Ohio State University athletic director Gene Smith suggested all FBS football conferences should unite under the auspices of the College Football Playoff and leave the NCAA and its governance model behind. The dramatic statement from a person of such stature was nonetheless predictable given the current landscape of intercollegiate athletics. The days of the NCAA as we know it are coming to an end, and the only thing certain is change.
By extension, this debate over the future of intercollegiate sports concerns all elite and mass sports development models in the United States. Around 80% of elite sports development programs in our country are grounded in the education system, which produces the bulk of athletes for the professional ranks and for national and Olympic teams (often for other countries, but I digress). We are the only nation in the world that has such a significant portion of commercialized, top-level athletics grounded in the schools, and as I state in my 2018 book, Alternative Models of Sport Development in America: Solutions to a Crisis in Education and Public Health, it is time that America looks beyond the scholastic system for elite sports development and financing.
Other countries, like Germany, primarily use the education system for sports sampling and physical education. Elite athlete development and mass sports participation are mostly governed outside the educational bailiwick, through national and regional sport federations down to the local sports clubs.
One significant but overlooked aspect of elite sports development is the existing active duty and reserve military system in various countries, including the United States. U.S military branches have produced some of the most accomplished athletes in sports history, including U.S. Army boxers Ray Mercer and James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Army hurdler and pioneering bobsledder Willie Davenport, Marine wrestler Greg Gibson, Navy basketball player David Robinson, and Air Force divers Micki King and Phil Boggs, just to name few. In the Army alone, 446 U.S. Army soldiers have represented the U.S. at the Olympics, earning 111 medals in a variety of sports since 1948.
These worlds collided on April 28 when Sportico published the story, Military Mulls Massive Recruiting Plan to Enlist College Athletes, by Daniel Libit and Eben Novy-Williams. The article discussed a proposal to fund athletic scholarships for college athletes in all sports except football and basketball in exchange for their mandatory service after graduating. Theoretically, the idea solves not only inefficient recruiting within the U.S. Armed Forces, but also helps address the tenuous financial future of college sports.
Currently the U.S. Army runs the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) as way to recruit and develop elite athletes, prepare for national and international competition in robust service and inter-service competitions, as well as support nationally and internationally ranked soldiers on U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. These athletes compete worldwide for the military and keep current with requirements, attend military schools and stay competitive with their uniformed counterparts. The WCAP also is used for important national visibility, and can reinforce public pride in the Armed Forces. The arrangement is not unlike that of other countries, and other U.S. service branches that have set aside a small portion of their military for elite sports development.
In my opinion, ideas presented in the Sportico article merit further study. I am somewhat biased as a 12-year U.S. Army veteran who competed in the early 1980s as part of the military sports program in wrestling. While far from elite, I did get many perks of competing internationally for the Army. The military experience and high-level competition were transformational experiences. After my first tour of duty, I used my GI Bill and state National Guard educational benefits to pay for a bachelor’s degree debt free and use that social mobility to progress in life.
While my story is somewhat in reverse of the proposal detailed in Sportico, it does show how it can work. The military already has programs for future doctors, lawyers and other professional specialties where the degree is paid for initially, but the individual must then serve in that specialty for the military to “pay that time back.” This could work in the same way and provide college athletes a professional pathway to use their degree for the military, similar to ROTC programs. Not to mention it can be a huge cost saver for college athletic programs.
I fully understand resistance to this proposal. It should not be used as a back door draft and force college athletes to take this deal as the only way to compete athletically just to fill the ranks, but why not have it as a potential option and let the individual decide? The military can also sweeten the deal with degree completion and enlistment bonuses and/or the opportunity for a direct officer commission or ability to enroll at Officer Candidate School. Conversely, athletic departments could partner with existing ROTC programs on campus to do the exact same thing, with appropriate time adjustments for the athlete to meet both obligations concurrently.
In addition, the ability for some to continue competition at a high level in their sport while serving their country can also be enticing and enhance our national and Olympic teams. In all scenarios, there should be an opt-in provision, meaning if an athlete accepts the scholarship from the military they would have an obligation to serve, but not all college athletes should be forced to do this as the only option.
Many people will look at this route and choose it as a way to pay for college and have viable social mobility after graduation, not only in the military, but as in my case, well beyond their time in the service.
Prior to his career in academia, during which he has authored two books, more than 30 journal articles and 10 academic book chapters, Ridpath worked for over 15 years in intercollegiate athletics administration and coaching.