College sports make front-page news, but in recent years, scandals seem to overshadow wins and losses more often than fans would like to admit. Debates on the entire system of collegiate amateurism and the balance of power between college coaches – often some of the highest paid university employees – have raged on. Most recently, the resignation of Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, has blurred the line between what is acceptable treatment of student-athletes and what isn’t.
There have been plenty of people – even his former players – who have argued that Rice’s actions were normal for a coach. But, sadly, Rice’s actions toward his players are micro-scale problems within the macro system of the NCAA. Rice is not collegiate sports’ biggest flaw. That dubious distinction belongs to what makes the whole situation as newsworthy as it is: A highly paid college coach employed at a school that was about to move into one of the biggest conferences was caught on camera exploiting his players – whose only payment is the opportunity to attend classes at the school they represent – as expendable commodities and the school did virtually nothing about it.
Ultimately, the root of the problem is the vague and nebulous definition of what being a “student-athlete” entails. According to “The Shame of College Sports,” an article in The Atlantic by Taylor Branch, “college players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals).”
The equivocal “student-athlete” term was coined by the NCAA with intent to impede student athletes’ rights. The student-athlete is a student and an athlete but the hierarchical power struggle between what is more important is at play.
Take, for example, the recent grade-changing scandal at Auburn. Universities are becoming more concerned with how the player will benefit the college or university rather than how the college or university can benefit the player. Academia is not the top priority of the university when the stakes are high and contracts get raised whenever a team succeeds at winning games. However, this is detrimental to the players by infringing on their ability to succeed in school. If the role of student does come first, as it does chronologically in the term, then providing a quality education should never be displaced by a desire to keep athletes on their respective fields of play.
The top college teams in the nation demand a great deal of their student-athletes. But if they’re not making the providing of a quality education a top priority, then the athletes aren’t getting much in return other than the slim chance at making it big in the pros.
Deon Miller, a wide receiver for the Temple football team hesitated when asked if he thought student-athletes should be paid.
“I don’t want to be selfish, but it’s hard to live outside of school when I have no time to get a job,” he said. “I have to stretch my financial aid.”
Universities in the power conferences are sponsored and televised, accumulating billions of dollars for the NCAA as well as the universities, yet the young athletes receive comparatively little. Miller, along with most of his teammates, attends Temple on scholarship and/or receives financial aid. Unfortunately, this is not enough and a student-athlete’s time is limited between class and practice. It’s difficult for athletes to obtain a part-time job.
So if they can’t get a job, then they should at least be able to benefit in some manner – even if it is indirectly – from the product they produce: their athletic achievements. Right? Not according to NCAA rules.
In 2010, Reggie Bush and USC were penalized by the NCAA for the player’s acceptance of gifts from agents while at the school. Under NCAA Division I Bylaw 12.1, an athlete is ineligible to play the sport if the athlete “uses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport.” The penalty in the Bush case: a reduction of 30 scholarships throughout the course of three years. And while this may on the surface seem to punish the program by preventing it from bringing in as much top-shelf talent, what it really does is shrink the pool of scholarship opportunities for incoming athletes. Throughout those three years, 30 athletes couldn’t accept offers from USC, which meant they likely took them from other programs, displacing 30 other athletes, and so on until 30 high school football players were told there were no openings remaining.
Meanwhile, then-head coach Pete Carroll’s salary was in the millions.
But had Bush just been paid for his services in the first place, the whole situation, as well as the many like it that have happened since, could all have been avoided.
Even after this harsh punishment, in 2010 A.J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, sold his own jersey to pay for spring-break. A few months later, Ohio State football players were investigated regarding a violation of the NCAA’s rules against discounts linked to athletic performance. Evidently, the penalties are not fixing the problem.
Colleges and universities need to stop pretending that our current system is the status quo. As Branch states in his article, “The United States is the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports at institutions of higher learning.”
Universities are moving away from their academic mission, instead accumulating wealth on behalf of student-athletes. Greed is of main concern, and it’s disturbing to think that when, or rather if, players graduate, the NCAA can still continue to collect on behalf of a player that is dehumanized in a video game.
Maybe it’s time for the United States to use other countries as an example and quit the NCAA and intercollegiate sports to return to the initial focus of education as the leading priority of our society.
Chelsea Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.