By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Spelman College, the oldest historically black U.S. college for women, is scrapping its competitive sports program in a bold effort to help students combat the troubling health statistics faced by African-American women.
The private school, based in Atlanta, Georgia, will cease competing against other colleges' athletic teams at the end of the current academic year. It will then put its $1 million annual sports budget toward improving the health of all 2,100 students, said college president Beverly Daniel Tatum.
The college plans to expand fitness programs such as strength training, Pilates and yoga, and is raising money for a new gymnasium, Tatum said.
The idea to try something different came after the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III athletic conference Spelman belongs to decided to disband.
"I started thinking about the state-of-the art wellness program we could develop if we reallocated the money we were spending on the sports program that was benefiting a very small number of students," Tatum said. "We could flip that script, and we could put that money into a program for everyone."
Health statistics for African-American women are disturbing, Tatum said, with higher rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure than other groups.
Fifty-one percent of black women over the age of 20 are obese, compared to 32.8 percent of white women, according to the American Heart Association.
An estimated 9.5 percent of African-American women have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 5.4 percent of white women, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Spelman has 80 student athletes, and fields teams in volleyball, basketball, soccer, cross country, tennis, golf and softball. Division III teams are not allowed to offer sports scholarships, and Spelman does not recruit athletes, Tatum said.
The school's wellness program, on the other hand, has about 300 participants, nearly four times the number of student athletes. But the current wellness program has been limited by the sports teams, which often use athletic facilities for practice and games, Tatum said.
By expanding the broader program, "instead of learning how to play soccer or basketball, the focus will be on fitness for life," she said.
Tatum said she knew of no other college that has made a similar decision.
Colleges have been more likely to take the opposite approach - cutting physical education programs to fund sports, said Philip Haberstro, former president of the National Association for Health and Fitness. Continued...