More than a Game: Here’s Why College Sports Really Matter

By: Nick Maloney

Last Friday, the Drexel men’s basketball team ended their season with a first round defeat in the CAA tournament. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Dragons basketball, (I’ll assume the vast majority) let me give you a recap: they emerged from an almost unwatchable first half of play. There were 19 turnovers and 22 turnovers for each team. JMU head coach Louis Rowe was ejected on back-to-back technical fouls. This would not last for long. A halftime implementation of a full court press fully demobilized first year coach Zach Spiker’s young group. The same story persisted: stagnant offense, missed shots, mental mistakes. They fell behind, and just lacked the firepower to make the necessary run to close the gap and make things interesting.

And so, when the final buzzer sounded at TD Arena late in the evening, the 64-70 defeat signaled not only the end of another season for Drexel basketball, but the opportunity to do some reflecting on the season past and the program’s future.

What should expectations for next year be? Freshman guard Kurk Lee has certainly proven himself to be a compelling playmaker on the floor. He, along with transfers Tramaine Isabell (Missouri) and Troy Harper (Campbell) should make for one of the exciting backcourts in the CAA. 6-8 freshman swingman Jarvis Doles hopes to be the next in the Baltimore Pipeline (see: Kurk and Damion Lee) to leave an impact on the school. And returning seniors Miles Overton, Austin Williams, and Sammy Mojica should provide some much-needed leadership for yet another underclassman-laden roster. Spiker may yet have some potential recruits or graduate transfers up his sleeve.

In the end, though, competitive sports is a results-driven industry, and while it seems as if the gears may be in motion for the basketball program to once again compete in the CAA, the fact remains that the team’s final record (9-23), is simply unacceptable. And upon closer examination, the record itself is not the only unacceptable thing that surrounds Drexel athletics. The basketball team’s recent historic struggles stand as an intriguing foray into the debate between the value of athletics on a college campus.

Going into this season, even the most optimistic of fans would have had to concede that there would be growing pains for Drexel’s young team and a new coach. The pragmatist would note that he was given a difficult hand to walk into, with two starting guards transferring away last year in Rashann London and the very promising Terrell Allen. They lost their top scorer in Tavon Allen to graduation last year as well. Spiker has yet to have the opportunity to demonstrate the recruiting prowess that helped him turn around a historically troubled West Point program. And still, his group’s effort could not be questioned: the following arguments are not an indictment of them or him by any means.

Let’s first go back to January of 2016, when Drexel president John Fry wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “We’re Glad we Say No to College Football”. Fry laid out many practical arguments against having a high-profile college football program on campus (curiously timed with Temple’s ongoing bid to build a stadium on their North Philadelphia campus). Fry’s points are virtually incontestable. Economically, it’s a disaster: 110 of 130 Division-One programs operate in an economic deficit. Fry paints a picture of enamored schools blindly throwing money at a cash cow of a program that simply does not reciprocate. Many college football coaches are the highest paid state employees. Money is funneled into new stadiums, new equipment and new facilities to woo recruits and please a large demographic of boosters.

“Our Division I athletic programs create a strong sense of pride on campus,” he writes, “But we focus entirely and exclusively on our mission: delivering a high-quality education for all students. More universities should feel welcome to join us.”

All due respect to Drexel’s other division one athletic programs, some of which have indeed enjoyed great success as of late, but right or wrong, men’s basketball is the preeminent program that the school offers. And as much as President Fry may believe otherwise, without a football program, the basketball program stands next in line as a de-facto face put forward by the university, no matter how much the idealist may point toward the “golden scholastic standard” offered by Fry. It is truly baffling that a school with a history woven into the rich tapestry of Philadelphia college basketball (with some of the best local high school talent in the entire country nonetheless), have such a disfigured face at the moment.

But any potential reputation-harming consequences are debatable at best. The ultra-focused student or concerned parent proceeds unfazed. How can the objective reader argue with a strictly-scholastic approach toward higher education? At its core, we must reluctantly admit that school is essentially school. At some point in between these blissful “life with training wheels” years, we also have to form our 18-year-old selves into functioning members of society. Our school should set us up for the best chance at our future, giving us a quality education and every opportunity for professional success. Money poured into these pathways are the best investment for us.

The fact of the matter is that college sports are an investment in themselves, not simply in the athletes that take the court but in the well-being of the student body as a whole.

Revisit the excerpt from President Fry’s article. “Our Division I athletic programs create a strong sense of pride on campus.” They do? Tune into any nationally televised college basketball game on ESPN. And it doesn’t have to be among the basketball “blue bloods” of Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Indiana. Then wander over to the Daskalakis Athletic Center on a Saturday afternoon or weeknight game. Go to senior night of all games. What you will see is so much different that it hurts.

The stands fill slowly. At tip-off, the stands are still half full, to be generous. Whole sections of the small arena (capacity ~2500) remain empty. Last season, the school averaged a 1300-person attendance, lower than schools like CSU Bakersfield, Idaho State, and Quinnipiac. Player’s parents from both schools are easily visible. The student section remains less than a third full. Everyone sits. Sure, the 6 or so member DAC pack cheers admirably, standing the whole game, raising their hands to the sky and fluttering their fingers on free throws, heckling the opposing team on inbounds plays, holding up signs and trying to engage the rest of the student section, but to no avail. It remains largely silent, with the cheerleaders and a smattering of engaged voices rattling around the stadium, mixing with the all-too-audible sound of the sneakers gripping court on a cut, plays called out by the offense, defensive switches yelled out by teammates on a pick-and-roll. This is many things. School spirit is not one of them.

“Honestly, sometimes I’m embarrassed to wear my Drexel stuff outside of campus,” one sophomore business student admitted. “It’s come to the point where I find it odd to when other people have excessive pride in their school sports,” said another. This doesn’t paint the picture of an exceedingly happy, healthy student population that’s excited to be at their school.

Critics may note that Drexel is a vastly different school than many other traditional basketball programs. Based on highly technical majors, it utilized a quarter system to accelerate a semester’s worth of course load into a 12 week period. Students also are employed in full-time co-ops for six month periods, weathering the challenges of interviewing and solving “real-world” problems with legitimate consequences. Stress levels are high for a majority of the year. As an architectural engineering major myself, I am happy that my school is investing in the technology and staff to keep my education up to date with an evolving industry. But, in an uber competitive environment such as this, having healthy outlets for stress relief are even that much more necessary. A sophomore mechanical engineering major shared similar concerns: “[A competitive sports program] would boost morale and relieve some stress is what is such a rigorous and draining course load.”

Additionally, take into account this backdrop and acknowledge the social challenges that exist in an environment such as Drexel’s. With time commitments overwhelmingly weighted toward personal or educational obligations, time can be sparse to make connections with our peers. People burrow into social groups and the lines that separate social groups became more and more defined. But a college sporting event has the capability to blur some of these lines, even if just for a few hours on a weekend afternoon, to unite individuals with entirely different interests or paths in a common, productive venture. Lost in the uber-competitive world of a higher education is that simple fact that social literacy is of equal if not arguably greater value, than what we absorb from textbooks.

With this in mind, having a college sports program worthy of our respect and attendance is not only an added bonus to an experience, but in many ways a right. It enhances school pride and image, eases mental stressors that can build up and turn dangerous, and offer new pathways for social growth.  Funds earmarked for improving quality of education are admirable. But when money is devoted to the arms race of improving housing, dining, or facilities to lure in potential applicants, it is worth questioning whether the investment in athletics may actually be a more prudent one. And maybe, just maybe, one March I’ll be able to turn on the TV and see some Drexel blue and gold on my screen. But for now, I’m just left dreaming in a half-empty gym.

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