Spelman College chooses fitness over athletics

Published 8:50 am Friday, November 2, 2012

ATLANTA — Sports began on American college campuses as a way for students to blow off steam and be healthy. Over the last century and a half, athletics have transformed into something very different: a handful of elite athletes, showered with resources and coaching, competing against other schools while the rest of the student body cheers from the stands.

On Thursday, Spelman College — a historically black women’s college in Atlanta with a far-from-big-time NCAA athletics program — announced how it plans to return to the old model. The school said it would use the nearly $1 million that had been dedicated to its intercollegiate sports program, serving just 4 percent of students, for a campus-wide health and fitness program benefiting all 2,100.

“When I was looking at the decision, it wasn’t being driven by the cost as much as the benefit. With $1 million, 80 student-athletes are benefiting,” said Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman’s president. “Or should we invest in a wellness program that would touch every student’s life?”

Email newsletter signup

Spelman’s decision won’t influence the Georgias and Ohio States of the world — where sports have become inextricable from the identity of the university. But it could attract notice at a broader band of colleges struggling with budget cuts and agonizing over whether the cost of college athletics is compatible with their missions.

For Tatum, there is also an element of social responsibility. She said a campus analysis found that almost one out of every two students has high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes or is obese.

“I have been to funerals of young alums who were not taking care of themselves, and I believe we can change that pattern not only for them but for the broader community,” Tatum said.

The Division III school has been part of the Great South Athletic Conference in seven sports, including basketball, softball and tennis. Tatum said the school was sending a letter to the NCAA saying the school would be withdrawing from the conference and would no longer have an athletics program. Instead, the school plans to expand wellness programs and renovate fitness facilities.

David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, called the announcement eye-catching and predicted it could serve as a model at similar schools.

“I don’t really look at this as a complete anomaly,” said Ridpath, who is also president-elect of the Drake Group, a national faculty organization advocating for changes in college athletics. “I think there might be other schools that try to get out of the rat race and get back to the original view of we need to worry about the mind and body of our students.”

Spelman is unusually well-suited for such a move as it will likely face little uproar from alumni. Tatum acknowledged that Spelman’s student-athletes were disappointed when they were told last spring, but said she was hopeful it would not discourage them or future students.

“They are passionate about what they do and want to keep doing it,” Tatum said. “Students who really want to be at Spelman will still come to Spelman. Athletics has been important to those students who have participated but to the overall campus community it has not been a major emphasis.”

The cost of athletics can be particularly painful at HBCUs, which have struggled to maintain enrollment in recent years, due to the weak economy and tighter credit requirements that have made it harder for some of their often low-income students to get loans to pay for college.

Earlier this month, all-male Morehouse College — Spelman’s sibling institution in Atlanta — announced it would furlough faculty and make other budget cuts due to lower-than-expected enrollment.

The economics of college athletics vary widely from big-time programs to Division III schools where intercollegiate athletics are little more than another extracurricular activity. At most places, they lose money for the college and typically, schools say that’s fine. They argue there’s educational value in athletics, and they run all sorts of programs to benefit students that aren’t expected to pay for themselves, from jazz bands to the English department. It’s part of the college experience.

But athletics are a part of the experience for only the tiny percentage of students who participate directly. According to the NCAA, there are about 400,000 student-athletes nationwide, but there are 18.6 million undergraduates.

The median Division 1 athletic program, including those without football, is losing about $10 million annually, according to NCAA figures.

At programs like Spelman, the losses are less severe but expenses are rising rapidly. For Division III schools with football programs, expenses from athletics have nearly doubled since 2004 to $2.9 million for the median school. At schools without football, such as Spelman, costs have more than doubled to about $1.4 million annually.

At Spelman, the wellness initiative includes spending money to help renovate the school’s Read Hall, which was built in the 1950s, to make it a state-of-the-art fitness facility, with expanded hours and programs.

“We are trying to meet students where they are in terms of their interest, but also helping them understand that the elements of wellness … are the kinds of things that are going to help them avoid the kinds of illnesses that are killing African-American women far too early,” Tatum said.