How to fix college athletics

The administration of major college sports programs in the United States has major problems. If you didn’t know this, or you disagree, please read this investigative piece by Taylor Branch in The Atlantic and come back.

I won’t attempt to capture the entire argument here, but in summary, universities generate billions of dollars from these programs, namely football and basketball, on the backs of “student-athletes” who are compensated well below their earning potential in this system. As a result, there are many external forces in this system (agents, media, equipment companies, and so on) who have interests that seem to run counter to the ideals of higher education.

I’m putting it mildly. Read Branch’s piece.

Most people who care agree there’s a problem, but thoughts diverge widely on what to do about it. I have a simple proposal, that I think would be a huge improvement:

Make athletic scholarships guaranteed for an additional four years AFTER athletic eligibility has expired. That is, you can play four years of football or basketball (or less if they cut you sooner) but you still have four years in which to complete your studies, without the pressure and time commitments of athletics. To put it another way: After you realize you won't be a pro, and after your school and the NCAA can’t make any more money from your efforts, now you get a chance to take education seriously and focus on it.

Many argue that the value of a college education is sufficient compensation, citing the costs of such as education today and the expected benefits of having a diploma. This may be true, if all students were really receiving this value. Did you know that athletic scholarships are not guaranteed? That’s right, if you get hurt this year, you might lose your scholarship next year. Even worse, many schools knowingly offer more scholarships than they can give, revoking some at the last moment (and leaving kids scrambling for an alternative).

Here’s why my suggestion is an improvement:

  1. Athletes in big-time programs (e.g. BCS football) simply don’t have enough time to take their studies seriously. They have the daily schedule and pressure of a professional athlete, which doesn’t leave much room to be a full-time student. With millions on the line, we can’t trust their school to properly encourage them to focus on academics.
  2. Young athletes are lured by the promise of a career in the NBA or NFL, and by the time they realize they won’t make it, they’ve lost the chance to take advantage of their college opportunity.
  3. Your opportunity at a degree can’t be taken away from you by injury, coaching changes, or any of the other things that are out of an athlete’s control.
  4. It signifies a true commitment on the part of the university that all students, including athletes, will be given an opportunity to get an education.

Finally, the thing I like about this idea the best is that universities and the NCAA can’t rationally object to it — to do so would be to outright admit that the current system is failing to educate college athletes. What would they object to? Guaranteeing an education to every athlete? Isn’t this what they’re supposedly doing already?

There are certainly a lot of details that would need to be filled in. For example, would this apply only to football and basketball? Players at every position, from QB to kicker? What would the athletes’ status be during their playing days—are they still considered students too?

I’m just saying it’s a start.

UPDATE: Big Ten conference commissioner Jim Delany just outlined a potential reform plan that is remarkably similar to this idea.

Delany would like to see schools commit to allowing athletes to return to school after their playing days if they did not finish their bachelor’s degree. If an athlete chooses to do so, the school would pick up the tab for the rest of that player’s education.

Of course, we’ll have to wait to see the details and timeline for such a plan.

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