Money Well Spent? A $50 Million Gift to Nurture Student-Athlete Leaders

If you're a college sports fan, you've likely seen commercials during March Madness or a football bowl celebrating student-athletes—young men and women who not only excel on the court and field, but in the classroom. On the other hand, there's been a pretty rigorous debate about just how hard these students actually hit the books, and how serious colleges and universities are about making sure these students receive a well-rounded education. University of North Carolina was in the news recently for offering a “no show” class for student athletes in which students received grades for classes they didn't attend; earlier this year, the The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the NCAA was investigating academic fraud at some 20 schools.

Writing for Zocalo Public Square, meanwhile, UCLA Professor of Psychology and Marketing Daniel Oppenheimer suggests that part of the problem is student-athletes' expections of their peers. One study found that while student-athletes valued academics at a nine out of 10 for themselves, when asked about how much their athlete peers cared, they rated academics a 7.8. Psychologists call this “pluralistic ignorance," a circumstance in which there's a discrepancy between private preferences and perceptions of group norms. 

Consider all of this with the news about a recent $50 million gift by Peter and Susan Cooper to Georgetown to create a new innovative leadership program for the university’s student-athletes and to fund the completion of the sports field. The so-called Cooper Athletics Leadership Program (CALP) will be the home of a "unique transdisciplinary, academically-grounded approach to the student practice of leadership dynamics in an intercollegiate athletics environment."

Basically, the idea is that college athletics aren't just a good thing, they can be transformative. Or as Cooper put it, "We believe that athletics and academics combine to provide an ideal crucible to create future leaders."

If that claim sounds like a stretch, consider this long list of athletes who went on to hold elective office, including U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Or look at this list of CEOs who once played college sports. Or how about this study that found that half of top female executives were college athletes. 

According to Georgetown, there are currently 750 student-athletes at the school, and for a sports powerhouse that is often in the spotlight, a gift like this makes sense—especially given the broader debate we've been talking about. One component of CALP involves a "longitudinal approach to holistic development in preparation for professional careers," and another involves "the leveraging of leadership resources within the Washington, D.C. community."

Perhaps this program could be part of the equation that helps all student-athletes feel like they're allowed to pursue their academic interests vigorously. CALP also might improve public perceptions about how serious colleges and universities are about making sure their athletes hit the books.

Peter Cooper is a California-based New Zealander, and founder and executive chairman of Cooper and Company, a private investment company with offices in Newport Beach, CA, Auckland and Texas. Some of the couple's philanthropy actually goes abroad through the Britomart Arts Foundation, which supports the arts in downtown Auckland, New Zealand. However, all five of the couple's children are Georgetown alums, so there are plenty of strong motivations tying this family back to Georgetown. Several of the couple's kids played sports at Georgetown, too.