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Reasons college sports programs still matter from a rising high school senior

While the debate about paying collegiate athletes and pay continues, it is important to remember that athletics pays a much larger role in college culture than just the product on the field.

Despite being a mediocre sprinter and shot putter – aka I won’t be receiving a D1 scholarship — university athletic programs will play a significant role as I approach numerous college tours this summer and the college admissions process this fall. This is because my entire life has led me to believe strong athletic programs are integral to the college experience. The same way many people equate Greek systems or the spirit in college towns to pinnacles of college life, my vision of the college experience is associated with distinguished football teams.

Now, more than ever, this concept is becoming more prevalent, especially since I’ve been enrolled in small, private schools my entire life. Make no mistake about it, I attend a wonderful high school, but rigorous academics have taken precedence over sports and social activities as the main focus of my school life. For example, the only Homecoming football game — 8-man football, that is — I stayed the duration of came as a result of my cheerleader duties — my cheerleading experience is an entirely separate tangent…believe me. As things go, I feel like I missed out on a significant part of what some would characterize as the typical high school experience.  These factors led to athletics being an important distinguishing quality during my search for a college.

But back to why this idea is rooted in my mind: I’ve grown up around college football, and I could never let it go. My family has been season ticket holders for the USC Trojans at the LA Coliseum since about 1970, so naturally both Trojan pride and an intense love for college football run deep within me. If you ever ask, I’ll tell you my favorite time of year is football season, and I wouldn’t give up Saturdays in the fall for anything.

Not to mention, sports opens the door for other valuable experiences, such as road trips. I know one my dad’s favorite college adventures was a trip he took with his dorm mates to Berkley for a USC vs Cal game. To this day, he and his friends continue their road trip tradition by going to the non-conference game of the year, or heading to a Pac-12 faceoff that just happens to be out of state.

I can’t imagine a better study break than going to, or cramming into, the student centers to watch football or basketball road games. That’s the type of camaraderie I want in college: The type where we sit out in the rain or snow to cheer on our team, win or lose—the type where if we lose on Saturday, we’re still bitter Monday morning, but by Tuesday we’re looking forward to the next game.

As a sidenote, don’t tell me that Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso coming to host College Gameday on your campus isn’t an incredible experience. I wake up early every Saturday to watch it, so that’s an opportunity I would not pass up if the ESPN crew came to my campus. Come to think of it, the privilege of College Gameday hosting their show from your campus is a rather spectacular way to market a university as well. It shows off the beauty, the school spirit and passion of the student body, all while using sports as a back drop through showcasing the talent of the football team during the featured game of the day.

As college football becomes more and more of a business something seemingly basic, like hosting Gameday, can do a lot to spark interest among sponsors, or even potential applicants. My dad and I have watched Gameday countless times, which has always led to him asking whether I would be interested in attending the schools being featured. It always sparks a great dialogue about location, lifestyle, overall fit, and even academics. To be frank, my base knowledge of most universities stems from watching football, or occasionally March Madness.

Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Still, these schools don’t always win—on or off the field. For example, Minnesota and South Carolina had losing seasons in 2015, but I doubt their records discouraged students from either applying or caused a sudden desire to transfer. Conversely, as extreme controversies arise that may or may not directly affect athletics, like those at Penn State and Missouri, the college experience so many students seek may be materially impacted.

Teams don’t necessarily have to have winning seasons in order to deliver fans and students high entertainment value; for me, I simply find a strong presence on campus most essential—having something to tailgate for surpasses the desire to celebrate after. I mean no disrespect to the small liberal arts and tech schools to which my friends are interested in, but I need a school where rivalry weeks are treated like Carnival and the student section at football games is the craziest place in town to be.

With this in mind, I look forward to touring various ACC and Big 10 schools this summer.

Paige Carter is a rising high school senior in Palos Verdes, California.

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