Student Achievement

Arne Duncan Talks School Sports, Phys. Ed., NCAA Cheating

By Bryan Toporek — July 08, 2011 5 min read
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If Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had his way, schools would be adding phys. ed. programs and after-school sports despite budget restrictions, the NCAA would rule with a much heavier iron fist, and the NBA would change its one-and-done rule to a two-and-done rule. And that’s just the beginning.

Duncan shared his thoughts on school sports last week on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival alongside Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, a gold-medal winner from the 1984 Olympics, and Jay Coakley, sociology professor and author of Sport In Society: Issues and Controversy.

The panel touched on a wide range of sporting issues—the role of sports in society as a whole, the ongoing cheating at the college level, and how to improve and promote school sports at the K-12 level. Intentional or not, Duncan ended up dominating a large portion of the hourlong conversation.

Here’s a breakdown of the Duncan quotables from the day:

On athlete pay vs. educator pay: “On a relative basis, to see what elite athletes are making and to see what elite teachers are making, there’s a total disconnect, and I think that’s a problem.”

On the value of sports in society: “For me, it’s actually less about the skills of the sport. It’s more about the discipline, the teamwork, the camaraderie ... all those skills that whether you’re an athlete or going to be a leader in society, I think are actually best taught on the playing field or the court; [they’re] much tougher to teach inside a classroom.”

On the reduction of phys. ed./sports programs in K-12 schools: “I think it’s absolutely devastating. There’s zero upside. ... Everywhere I go, I say, ‘The cuts you make, the budgets you present—those represent your values.’ And if you’re cutting out P.E., cutting out the arts, then you really don’t understand what’s important to our nation’s young people.”

On a longer school day: “I’ve said to the Y’s and the Boys and Girls Clubs who are all struggling for money, stop building Y’s and Boys and Girls Clubs! Get out of bricks and mortar and put all of your money into schools. We should give you the buildings for free. Schools have classrooms and computer labs and gyms and libraries, some have pools. Run the school academically from 9 in the morning to 3 o’clock; let the Y or the Boys and Girls Club take over the school from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 9 at night.”

On the benefits of physical activity in schools: “I was always one of those young boys who needed to run around. We had P.E. four times a week at the school I went to, we had recess, and when I ran around and burned off some steam, I could sit down and concentrate. If I didn’t do it, I was pretty tough on my teachers. So it’s not just about the physical benefits, it’s actually about better academic success as well.”

On what role the Dept. of Ed. can play in promoting fitness: “I think what we can do so well is to share best practices. To shine a spotlight where folks are doing things well. Again, in the current climate, I don’t think a bunch of federal mandates would be too well received. But talking about our values, talking about what’s important, and highlighting places that are doing a great job of doing that, there’s absolutely a role for us that we need to play and we should be playing.”

On the NCAA: “I’ve said the NCAA, other than the military, is the second-biggest leadership-training program the country has.”

On boosting academic importance for NCAA athletes: “Everybody when you go to college, you want to go to the [NCAA] tournament. That’s your dream. That’s why you go play. If they knew [that] they weren’t taking their academics seriously and if their institution isn’t focused on their academic success, that that opportunity would be denied them, I think that would be a total culture change. And I think that would draw a line in the sand and force a whole lot of better behavior.”

He then brought up Tennessee, where men’s coach Bruce Pearl recently was fired for lying to the NCAA, while women’s coach Pat Summit graduates “something like 99 percent of her players” and runs a much more successful athletic program.

On reducing NCAA cheating: “The penalties always follow the program, not the coach, and that’s just absolutely crazy to me. ... If the penalties followed the coach, and they were barred from coaching for six months or a year, all of this craziness would go away. All the cheating, all the whatever. But coaches are actually incentivized now to cheat, leave the program in rubble, and use that to catapult to the next job. That’s a totally wrong structure.”

On guaranteed multiyear athletic scholarships: “I’d be more than open to that. I think it’s a valid point you hear about players—they come in as a big recruit, then their knee gets blown out, and all of the sudden they’re sort of an afterthought. I think it’d maybe not only be a four-year thing, but a five- or six-year commitment. The point is to get that degree, and if it takes five years, that’s fine. If it takes six years, that’s fine.” (Read my entry about athletic scholarships for more details on exactly what an athletic scholarship includes.)

On the NBA’s one-and-done rule: “I think they should at least extend that to two. What actually happens is that those players go to class maybe through December of their freshman year [in college], then they just stop going to class after that. So this idea of them getting some college experience, it just doesn’t happen. They’re out of there three months after they arrive on campus, they’re on the way to the NBA. At least if they have to stay for a second year, then at least they have one year and hopefully accumulate some credits and figure out what happens there. So maybe an early-entry [to the NBA] for the elite of the elite, but then have a longer time before you go in [for the others].”

On paying college athletes to play: “Should we pay our college athletes? I’m not sure if we should. These scandals aren’t because these folks are necessarily impoverished. These are folks who are just doing illegal things to induce them to come to their university. And I go back: If the penalties followed the coach rather than the institution, I think a lot of this crazy recruiting stuff would go away, because coaches would not have the incentive to cheat and then catapult to the next job.” (For more on paying student-athletes, see my entry about the Big Ten conference’s proposal to pay student-athletes’ living expenses.)

Duke University’s Johnny Dawkins, left, shoots despite the efforts of Harvard’s Arne Duncan, during first half action on February 8, 1984 at Harvard.
--Sean Kardon/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.