Student-Athlete? Or Athlete-Student?
Are college athletes being exploited by the NCAA and their schools?
“March Madness” is a fitting title to bestow on the month in which one of the most prominent annual sporting events takes place – the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship. The widely publicized coverage of this tournament has nailed it into America’s pop culture. Every spring, as the snow begins to melt off branches, fans begin to fill out their brackets, battle over nose-bleed seats, and raid the apparel racks of stores in search of their new-found heroes. Davis, Lamb, Sullinger, Barnes… it is sometimes hard to remember that behind these names are real people, real boys, and more importantly, real students. It is also hard to realize, amid the glamor, that these young men are being unfairly exploited in their education and in their finances by their own schools as well as by NCAA league.
As a female “student-athlete” attending a NESCAC college, I openly admit that I have experienced only a fraction of the pressure and time commitment that the young men on these top Division 1 teams go through each year. While I admire their skills and dedication, I have come to value and appreciate the emphasis placed on the balance between academics and sports in the NESCAC league. The NESCAC schools ensure that student-athletes receive the same educational opportunities as any other non-athletic student. After all, as the NCAA states, we are “amateur” athletes and the vast majority of us will “go pro” in something other than sport. The line between amateur and professional gets rather vague in Division I athletics. Too often, the young men preforming in March Madness and other popular American sports, such as football, are treated not as amateur athletes but as professionals minus the pay.
It is impossible to imagine that these young men, who are putting ungodly hours into their sports in preparation for tournaments like March Madness, are receiving the same educational benefits as any other student. Consider the time commitment: for practices, two hours a day, minimum; for games, at least three hours from pre-game warm-ups to post-game meetings; for workouts, an hour a day; for travel, whole weekends on the road; for recovery, at least a full night’s sleep. Add a science lab, an English paper, and a French quiz on top? It seems close to impossible! To compensate for a student-athlete’s lack of time, it is well-known that members of these high-level teams are frequently advised to enroll in less demanding courses into order to ensure acceptable grades while maintaining their focus on their “amateur-level” sport. This amounts to a compromised education.
Supporters of this system and even some athletes may argue that they are attending that college because of their sport and not for the academics. Athletes argue that their future – a lucrative future – lies in professional sport. I ask these athletes and their supporters to take a serious reality check. What are the odds that they make it to the professionals? 1.2% of NCAA basketball players get drafted to the NBA. Ok, so what if they do make it? The average career of a professional football player is estimated to last 3.5 years, and that is if they are lucky enough to escape without any major career-ending injuries. At 28 years a professional athlete’s career could be over, so what now? I bet those athletes could use that education they put second way back when.
Another aspect of the athlete’s exploitation is financial. Although there are scandals and rumors of players unlawfully pocketing money from their respective school in reward for their performances and of recruits showered with “gifts” to lure them, it is easier to stick to the well-known facts. Schools do well by their athletes. Combine the ticket sales, the concession sales, the apparel sales, the special event sales, the publicity sales, the alumni donations received… the money adds up. Sport is big business, even at the college level.
So my question is: Are the athletes benefitting as much from the school as the school is befitting from them? I argue that they are not. Responsible schools – that is, schools interested in educating not just exploiting their athletes – need to unite to set limits to protect athletes, need to learn how to accommodate these athletes’ schedules and give them the chance to “do college” as well as sport. At the same time, athletes need to be realistic and take responsibility for their future beyond any sports career.