I originally wasn’t going to write about this, but after seeing last night’s 60 Minutes segment on college football, I’m curious.

To backtrack:

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.

Photo credit: US News Rankings

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?”

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.

[…]

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. [source]

During last night’s 60 Minutes segment on college football, there was a brief little moment that actually shocked me – the athletic director at University of Michigan spoke of how few athletics programs are actually financially solvent, with the school profiting off of its programs as opposed to the programs simply costing the schools money – and I’m assuming that he was only referring to Division I athletics. If only 22 or so of those 125 schools are, at minimum, breaking even… what’s that say about non-Division I schools?

Considering this, coupled with the financial plight of so many of our HBCUs, it made me think twice about the Spelman decision.

Dr. Tatum, Spelman’s current President, said something that stuck with me in this article:

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.

I’m not going to lie – I didn’t write about this earlier because I didn’t agree with the decision. I didn’t think it made sense to separate sports from wellness, but the hard reality is that not everyone relates to wellness through a sport… and they shouldn’t. It’s not for everyone, and that shouldn’t be the only opportunity that students have to get where they want to go. (I may be looking for a sport to show off my newfound hypercompetitive nature now, but I would’ve cringed at the thought a few years ago.) Furthermore, when you see how small the athletics program was, and how few students it affected in comparison to how many students on campus might embrace and benefit from the support of a more comprehensive wellness program.

And, really… when you frame the conversation in terms of financial solvency coupled with “social responsibility,” I start wondering about the broader context. Is this something that more HBCUs should adopt? I’m pretty sure that Spelman’s statistics aren’t that much different from many other HBCUs in the country, so what role can HBCUs play in helping reinforce healthy living habits? What does a healthy, positive, encouraging collegiate wellness program look like? (Does it look like a new fitness facility?) And can it be done on $1 million a year?