Putting the Student Back in Student-Athlete
There are growing concerns about an out-of-control college athletic environment. Most of them center upon the enormous sums of money involved and the impact that these sums are having on common sense.
At the same time, many feel these sums of money, made from the sweat and efforts of young amateurs, have these institutions taking unfair advantage of their scholarship athletes. Some folks would contend that it is time to even pay these youngsters while they are toiling on the fields or in the gyms.
Bruce Smith has an idea that would actually provide the scholarship athlete a fair return on their services. After all, those 85 football players at Auburn and Oregon certainly created an awful lot of revenue for their universities.
Smith notes that the term student-athlete is a classic oxymoron. He quotes Charles Clotfelter (Is Sports in Your Mission Statement?) who had the audacity to suggest that for many colleges, sports might be “a core function of these universities” and that today several hundred American universities “are members in good standing of the commercial entertainment industry.”
But instead of attacking the current institution for what appears to be blatant hypocrisy, Smith offers a unique solution to one of the current problems, the fact that the demands of playing a college sport generally leaves precious little time for these young men and women to do what they are attending higher education for in the first place, to be a student.
For example, college football teams are theoretically limited in how much time a coach can demand of players, that 20-hour limitation (which excludes the time to travel to games) is by no means a realistic measure of the time commitment. A recent NCAA survey revealed that football players devoted more than 40 hours a week to practicing, playing, and training. Most agree that such a time commitment and level of effort is necessary for these individuals to be successful on their respective playing field.
As Smith notes, playing a college sport is the equivalent of a full time workweek for the average adult. But of course, there is that other lingering issue for these individuals, taking courses.
If one of these athletes were to take a full academic load of 15 credits, that athlete is supposed to expect a minimum of two hours of work outside of class for each one in. In tougher subjects, the expectation is often three to one. So a full course load theoretically translates to a minimum of 45 hours, or another typical workweek.
Smith asks simply, “Under such conditions, how crisply can anyone attack a problem set of nasty-looking differential equations?” But instead of criticizing the system, he states simply “what we ask of them strikes me as too much—or, at least, too much at once.”
He further notes that few of these athletes will have the ability to turn their game into a professional career yet they likely do not have the time to “take advantage of the array of opportunities college campuses offer them to develop both intellectual talents and leadership skills.”
Given that scenario, Smith suggests that universities “offer every scholarship athlete a voucher that would be redeemable for up to five years of free education and living expenses at the university that signs him or her to play a sport.” The number of free years would directly correlate to how many years the athlete was involved in the athletic program.
But instead of the athlete having to use it during his or her playing days at the school, Smith proposes that the voucher be good for a lifetime. In addition, Smith proposes that these scholarship athletes be able to also take courses tuition-free during their time they are playing their respective sport. Those courses would have no bearing on the lifetime voucher that has been promised.
In this way, those who have given their all to their university athletic program but do not make it to the professional level would actually be guaranteed the opportunity to get a full-fledged college experience even if it came after their playing days came to an end.
But even more radical, and the reason the proposal will go nowhere, is Smith’s idea that these athletes be allowed to take as few courses as they desire during their competitive season. During such time, Smith wants it to be the choice of the individual whether to be “either a student or an athlete, or a little of both.”
This of course comes up against the current notion that all athletes must carry a minimum number of credits to be eligible to play each season. But then again, while taking and passing courses is required, there are no specific requirements by the NCAA as to what rigor these classes must contain. Therefore it is no surprise that the vast majority of students playing college athletics are not earning a degree in engineering or computer science (the Wall Street Journal could not find a single college football player majoring in Physics).
It also sounds a bit like you would be paying players, at least providing an in-kind form of wages. But of course, that is precisely what the current system does; it just limits the in-kind remuneration (free tuition and room and board) to the years of athletic eligibility.
The idea would be extremely costly, but then again there appears to be little holding back the expenses currently being accumulated by big-time college programs. More importantly, it would provide athletes real additional flexibility and vastly increase each individual’s chance of succeeding.
It would of course also do one other thing according to Smith – it would put an end to the use of that oxymoron, the term student-athlete. And for that reason it deserves firm consideration – with a little tweaking regarding the expectations around taking courses while in season, the voucher option would finally give these athletes the return on their time and effort they truly deserve.