The value of college athletics and the status of the “student-athlete” have been debated at length throughout the past few years. With universities like Alabama and Michigan bringing in tens of millions of dollars through ticket sales and merchandise, there have been numerous calls for players in successful football and basketball programs to get a share of this proverbial pie. While the NCAA has stood firm in its opposition to paying players, the debate surrounding how these sportsmen are treated raises an even more important question: are these individuals student-athletes at all?
At a university like Yale or Harvard, we can generally feel sure that our athletes are fulfilling the same responsibilities in the classroom as the rest of the student body. Yale athletes face a high degree of academic rigor, with the added responsibilities of practices, lifts and games piled on top of it. But recruiting academically focused athletes to these elite universities can ultimately be a detriment to the talent level of their sports teams. Ivy League schools need to be more discerning when considering the academic qualifications of their recruits than SEC schools or universities in other top conferences, meaning that Ivies have a much smaller pool of high-school athletes to choose from. However, for the athletes, this disparity is likely for the best — current NFL players Eddie Lacy and Jameis Winston were probably better off academically at Alabama and Florida State than they would have been at Yale.
The real divide between being a student and being an athlete is defined by the classroom. When student-athletes face academic rigor, they simply must dedicate themselves to their classes in order to succeed. But when an educational institution prioritizes its cash-cow sports teams ahead of its academic standards, athletes tend to follow suit.
Most sports fans saw ESPN report on the fabricated classes at UNC Chapel Hill — courses that never met and assigned short final papers that amounted to little more than single paragraphs. Ultimately, the players involved in such an academic farce should rightly be called athletes rather than students. While there’s nothing wrong with an individual choosing to be an athlete rather than a student, I’d rather not have educational institutions sponsoring that decision.
That’s my real issue with big-market college sports. Most major programs remove the student part of being a student-athlete. If college competitors aren’t being paid for the millions of dollars they bring to big name programs, then schools shouldn’t be treating their teams like developmental funnels for professional leagues. If a university claims to be putting education first, then that should be the expectation for all its students, not just the ones who can’t dunk a basketball.
I’m not advocating for the elimination of college sports, but I’m simply arguing that there should be a separation between training players for the next level and educating students for the future. Calvin Johnson doesn’t need a degree from Georgia Tech to catch a football, and that’s perfectly fine.
American sports leagues should take a page from the handbook of European soccer when it comes to player development. Great soccer teams like Real Madrid, Juventus and Chelsea have youth academies to train players and ready them for the highest level of play. These organizations recognize this as a necessity because European universities haven’t created mechanisms for recruiting collegiate athletes to professional leagues. College sports in Europe are not nearly as monetized and are not treated as a door to the professional ranks. Big-name soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gigi Buffon and Eden Hazard showed promise as youth athletes and pursued athletics instead of academics. That’s a perfectly valid career approach; they just didn’t have to go to university to do it.
American universities shouldn’t be able to have their cake and eat it too. If athletes are attending schools with lowered academic expectations for a shot at the pros, then the NCAA shouldn’t try to hide behind a propped-up “student-athlete” label in order to avoid paying them. If these players really are student-athletes, no less should be expected of them academically than any other student. But as long as athletes are being treated as a source of income for major collegiate programs, they should be considered university employees rather than students.
As much as I love the roar and awe of a big college crowd, I’d honestly like NCAA sports to look a little more like they do here at Yale and at other small programs. Our student-athletes might not be No. 1 draft picks, but at least they’re still going to class.
Marc Cugnon is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .