Let's Make `Student-Athlete' Mean Something

AS I watched the NCAA basketball finals recently, I was impressed that Duke University, with a long tradition of graduating all of its scholarship athletes, was a member of the ``Final Four'' for the third time in the past five years. Amid the controversy over the National Collegiate Athletic Association's rules regarding eligibility of athletes, Duke proves that outstanding athletes (both black and white) can complete a four-year college education on schedule if given the proper incentives. It also implies that those incentives come primarily from coaches and the universities involved. The percentage of college athletes and nonathletes who enroll as freshmen and later graduate is about the same, but there is a difference. Most athletes go to school for four (or even five) years and still don't graduate, while most nonathletes who don't graduate drop out after the first year or two. Recent moves at both the high school and college levels that require athletes to maintain C grades to keep their eligibility prove there is a problem with the ``student'' part of ``student-athlete.''

The term student-athlete implies a student who also participates in athletics, but as usually practiced it should read athlete-student, designating an athlete who is enrolled in school. Attempts to keep athletes eligible usually take the form of making sure they pass a required number of courses and maintain a minimum grade-point average. This is most easily done for marginal students by having them enroll only in carefully selected classes that often produce no progress toward a degree. And since eligibility, not graduation, is the primary goal, athletes stay in school without making progress. At the end of their four-year eligibility, many still have several years of school left if they hope to graduate.

But Duke (and many other fine schools) has proved over the years that there are good athletes who are also good enough students to take a regular class load and graduate with the rest of their class. Most universities are guilty of exploiting both athletes and coaches, and of forcing coaches to exploit their athletes.

Universities that produce championship teams can reap millions of dollars in extra income, but they pay out only a fraction of those millions in scholarships to the athletes. NCAA rules prohibit paying athletes a salary, so a professional sports career or a college education are the athlete's only potential rewards. Most hope for a professional contract, but less than 1 percent will ever achieve that goal. A majority gets neither a degree nor a contract and must then pay for additional years of school or drop out.

As a professor over the past 20 years at several universities, I have seen how coaches and universities use athletes, keep them eligible by whatever means they can, and then discard them when their four years of eligibility are completed. I believe the universities owe their athletes more. In that light, I offer the following proposal:

Rule1:Coaches would be free to offer scholarships on whatever basis they choose for the first two years (including a red-shirt year) of an athlete's college eligibility.

Rule2:If a coach decides to commit a scholarship to an athlete for a third year, it would obligate the athletic department of that school to pay the tuition and fees of that athlete until he or she completed graduation requirements, signed a professional contract, transferred, or dropped out of school for personal reasons.

Four-year eligibility rules would not be changed and the total number of athletic scholarships available for participating athletes would not be jeopardized, but funds from athletic programs could be tied up for use by the non-graduated former players. Such a rule would provide incentives for coaches and universities to make certain that satisfactory degree progress was being achieved by all scholarship athletes.

At the end of the athlete's second year, coaches would have to evaluate his or her future potential to the team and their likelihood of completing degree requirements before their eligibility expired. Marginal students who were superior athletes with a high probability of signing a professional contract may be retained on scholarship with that expectation. Marginal students without that ability would presumably be cut. Students would then have the same incentives as coaches to make sure they performed in class.

Coaches would have an incentive to recruit only those athletes who could make satisfactory progress toward a degree. If, after two years, the athlete was not making satisfactory progress, the coach would risk committing funds to that athlete for several years after his or her eligibility ended. It would also encourage coaches to use a red-shirt year for most athletes to give them an extra year to complete their eligibility and their education at the same time.

This proposal could also replace requirements concerning hours taken, credits earned, and grade-point averages maintained, because all are being met if the student-athlete is making satisfactory progress toward a degree.

Until the term student-athlete becomes meaningful to both athletes and coaches, it will continue to mean only an athlete who is enrolled. Too many athletes are discovering too late that being a nongraduating athlete is just another form of exploitation.

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