The time has come for American colleges and universities to take a step which is long overdue: abandon the idea that full-time athletics must also include full-time academics.
The talented high school player does not receive a ''scholarship,'' he signs a contract which has no more to do with scholarship than with cribbage. He is employed to win games, draw the crowds, get the national rankings and with them the bids to bowls or tournaments which bring the lucrative TV contracts. The income which he helps to generate has become vital to the big-time budget. Meanwhile, his working hours may well be the equal of those of the big-league player.
The problem has been recognized, to be sure. One official of a university said that players should not be required to ''take class'' (as he put it) during a season. A legislator in a Midwest state noted that football revenues from the university team had balanced the university budget, and suggested that players get salaries. Howard Swearer, president of Brown University, thinks that perhaps some college teams might be made into farm clubs for the big leagues.
All these ideas touch on the problem. But there is a way to solve it. We must start by cutting the rigid athletic-academic tie-in as impractical and often very costly.
What I suggest is that each player/employee be required to take only one course per semester. This much is necessary so that he may still be classed as a ''student.'' Otherwise, the IRS might come knocking at the door, claiming that all the benefits received under a contract are simply remuneration for services rendered, and therefore taxable as income.
To afford a fuller academic opportunity for any athlete who wants one, vouchers would be issued each year good for enough semester hours for an academic year, and would be valid for four years from date of issue. Thus, when the original four years of athletic eligibility, along with tax-free board and lodging, expire, anyone who has proceeded at a modest pace with his studies can continue tuition-free as a student for the next few years simply by using his remaining vouchers. Of course anyone who prefers to carry a regular course load and graduate in the usual four years would be free to do that also.
With this system, we get rid of the eligibility frauds, such as the phony courses, the credits for work never taken, the doctored grades. Anybody, almost, can manage one course a semester.
We avoid the sort of lawsuit brought by a player who did not meet the 2.0 eligibility requirement and was put off his team. He sued for reinstatement on the ground that he was being deprived of an opportunity to make the big leagues.
We also can avoid the suit brought by an athlete who had been vigorously recruited but for whom a university was unable to discover any program or course to which he could be admitted. He claimed that he was entitled to be enrolled as a student so he could play on a team. The judge in the case agreed, apparently feeling that enticement to employment as an athlete should automatically ensure enrollment as a student.
Athletic contracts enable many fine young people to attend college; and some of them may well get continued employment in their sports through immensely lucrative contracts with big-league teams.
But these are personal benefits. Proper thought should be given to the benefits which good teams bring to a campus. They are much the same as those which big-league teams bring to a city. A group of great athletes, recruited from all over, constitute a group which locals can call ''our'' team. It is quite unlikely that any of the players will have any real contact with either campus or city before being brought in. (How many sons of alumni are playing this year at Euphoria U. or Widdershins College?) All the same, everyone can join in rejoicing at victories, in mourning at defeats, in going bananas en masse at championships. It is all very good for morale. We must not forget the effect of a great victory on the sports-minded alumnus, because the tears of joy which come to his eyes might have a trickle-down effect and reach his pocketbook. One more reason for victory! One more reason for recognizing the values of a fine team!
Get on at once with the voucher system! T. S. Eliot thought that human beings could not long face reality. Face it long enough to be fair to the teams, the players, and the colleges for whose budgets they work so hard.
This done, let everyone go see ''Chariots of Fire.''