As we traveled back from Yale-Harvard weekend, my friend who was driving piped up to ask, “Hey guys, remember to tell me when to get off the highway.” We all looked at our phones, only to realize we had gone due west about 80 miles in the wrong direction.
While I’d like to simply blame this on Apple Maps, the real culprit was that the other three of us had been yelling about college football for the last hour or so — specifically, how student-athletes should be treated on campuses.
With the Bowl Championship Series having been set yesterday, this is generally the time of year for such conversations to take place. Specifically, whether or not student-athletes are treated fairly at big-name universities. Perhaps, if they are even treated as students at all.
One of my friends in the car had a rather bleak assessment of the current state of such college athletics: Universities with gigantic sports programs (Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, etc.) have become factories over academies, “immorally” using student-athletes for their own gain.
In part, there is a fair case to be made here. It is impossible to ignore the numerous reports regarding the manipulation of academic standards and expectations for athletes, all in hope to ensure their eligibility (and performance) for game day.
Nevertheless, from this reasonable foundation, more and more people — be it my friend in the car or advocates nationwide — have thus espoused a solution drastically more troublesome than the original problem.
Their proposal? Pay student-athletes. And while this may appear appealing at first — as a neatly conceived manner of restoration — it is positively deleterious to the very core of the academy.
Of course, there is something that sets athletes apart. Some suggest that this factor is a unique time burden; however, I think this is difficult to maintain in comparison to actors, musicians, dancers, newspaper editors and the like. What is exceptional, though, is the revenue they generate. Athletes are pictured as tremendous cash cows, while greedy universities hoard money at their expense. This great disparity is what incites such scrutiny.
To be clear, though, it is wholly fictitious that athletes go entirely uncompensated for their efforts. They are paid, through full academic scholarships, with four years of a college education — an opportunity that often would not otherwise be available.
Granted, a reasonable objection still remains: Sure, they receive a certain benefit, but it is remarkably below the value they create. The problem with this logic, though, is a fundamental conflation of value from the lens of the academy.
When a university places a tangible pecuniary value on one student’s contribution — particularly, a contribution that is primarily of the body over the mind — compared to that of another, it is impossible to escape the latent cultural implication that follows. This prioritization of the commercial over the cerebral places a sort of sentimental, secondary value on the great musician or writer, whose great boon is perhaps decades down the road.
The idea that these artistic young minds have no immediate value, at a university of all places, is intellectually unjustifiable. Paying student-athletes in an effort to curb a sense of exploitation on the field will shatter the larger sense of a university’s identity. The academy must never allow the cold, arithmetical metrics of the marketplace to ever encroach on its evaluations of students.
Nobody is compelled into athletics, just as nobody is compelled into Shakespeare or journalism. A college offers a service: an education. We can approach and access this however we so choose. And while concerns regarding academic practices are certainly valid at times, no college, of whatever athletic merit, should permit the litany of precarious consequences that would come in creating this semiprofessional class of students.
But let’s not take these problems as cause to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is often a latent qualm undergirding most of the concerns about collegiate athletics — a problem with the very existence of the programs altogether. Yet, if we look to our time in college outside of a lens of sterile scholarship, and treat it more as an incubator for our foundational perceptions — senses of community, history, shared identity — the legacies of athletic programs are of paramount importance.
For such schools, teams do not end at the university borders; they are the product and lifeblood of their communities. To bear this mantle, even for just a few years, is a remarkable opportunity for a young man, not an onus we should wholly lament. But let’s not search for a dollar figure to measure this experience.
Harry Graver is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .