College sports designed to exploit student athletes

At least baseball has its own minor leagues. Sure, basketball and football maintain junior circuits too; yet while baseball takes care of its own farm system, the other two sports let colleges act as a plantation system on their behalf. Minor-league clubs take care of their prospects and the big-league teams’ investments. Should prospects in other sports not expect similar treatment? The regime of bribery and cheating alleged to have characterized the University’s basketball program is no more corrupt than baseball clubs paying minor-league prospects a decent salary and employing team lawyers to help players complete difficult immigration paperwork. Clem Haskins is just a minor league coach, just like the leaders of the St. Paul Saints or Buffalo Bisons. Accusations of misconduct forget this factor, finding corruption where only a farm league is conducting business as usual.
Since universities pay the salaries of perfectly good coaches like Haskins, these leaders and teachers of student athletes must pretend to have concerns other than developing players for professional leagues. Administrators and players mistakenly expect coaches to look out for such athletic nonsequiturs as grades and personal behavior.
Allegations by Jan Gangelhoff, and now several student tutors, tie perfectly into the University’s past athletic practices. Remember Courtney James? In 1996 he was about to lose his academic eligibility when personal and legal problems drove him from the University. Sure, students flunk out of college all the time — not every 20-year-old is ready for the rigors of higher education — but couple James’ inability to perform academically with the pressures of a performance-driven occupation like basketball and he was a bomb waiting to go off. His academic and personal problems made him damaged goods as far as the basketball program was concerned. Sensibly considering the team’s real interests, Haskins discarded James like a broken cog in a well-oiled machine.
Of course Haskins wants to be able to draft good players who are not qualified to attend college. Of course he’s frustrated when he must discard good players who cannot make the grade. Of course there is a temptation to subsidize players who are a little short on cash or to have their difficult homework ghost-written. Haskins’ problems are those of the plantation manager who is responsible for harvesting the best talent at the lowest price while trying to weave around academic restrictions and NCAA rules.
The current plantation system lets minor league basketball and football players attend college for free. Colleges exploit the pool of cheap student-athlete labor in order to field profitable minor league teams. Likewise, professional leagues exploit both players’ and their schools’ greed when harvesting the year’s best young talent. All the while, the professional clubs have banked considerable savings by not having been forced to pay for the development of up-and-coming players.
For the sake of the players, and for the honor of the schools, the plantation system in money sports must end. The first step in developing a more equitable system will be the complete elimination of athletic scholarships. All students, including those interested in participating in athletics, should face the same admissions standards, and no students should be allowed to compete in varsity athletics until they have successfully completed their freshman course work.
This radical change would return student athletics to the students, forcing the handful of big, moneymaking sports at each university to behave like myriad small and thriving ones. The University floats a decent sailing team mainly with the dedication of true student athletes — those who put grades and personal behavior above athletic success. The fundamental role of higher education in society is to educate. Only when that task is accomplished can students be allowed to strive for excellence outside the classroom.
Eliminating academic scholarships would break the plantations’ backs. A scholarship is not a free ride, it is a quid pro quo in which coaches give the gift of a college education on the condition that players perform, for free.
Defenders of the current system will cry foul. “How would athletically gifted poor kids, particularly minorities, go to college without these scholarships?”
The same way athletically ungifted poor kids and minorities go to college — applying their intellectual wherewithal to find one of the abundant merit- or need-based scholarships. Moreover, most public colleges are well within the financial grasp of those willing to work their way through school. If getting a job means not having time to play basketball or football, then so be it. Students must put their education before playing a game. Forcing students to trade their bodies for a free ride will not solve any inequities that prevent talented, young Americans from educating themselves.
Not only should athletic scholarships be eliminated, the college admissions process itself must return to the principles of equity on which it was founded. Who would dispute that many students receiving athletic scholarships would not have been admitted to the University if they could not have thrown the ball a little more accurately, run a bit faster or tackled a bit harder? Enforcing admissions requirements across the board will not hurt potential students, it will only help them. By admitting the educationally unready simply to work on the athletic plantations, colleges open up an opportunity, an opportunity for the school and the professional leagues to exploit young men and women who often cannot read a contract. Furthermore, sneaking unready students into college sets them up to fail early and hard unless they are willing to abandon their moral character and the real reason for attending school by finding someone else to do their homework.
“But wait,” cry the plantation boosters. “Many schools rely on the money brought in by their popular teams to fund much-needed academic programs.”
If schools cannot survive without the profits of their athletic plantations, let them buy and field fully professional minor-league teams outside of NCAA supervision. After all, most schools run research programs with no teaching benefits. Schools host such research programs because they raise an institution’s profile and contribute to the financial bottom line. A fully professional minor-league team would do the same and more.
College-sponsored minor leagues would allow young athletes who are not ready for college or who would rather defer their educations, to concentrate on developing their professional skills. It would also allow players to be paid for their genuine work as minor-leaguers. Like players in baseball’s farm system, young basketball and football players could demand decent pay and benefits, perhaps even including tuition reimbursement for the off-season.
Many coaches and college athletic administrators will argue that reshaping college athletics along these lines would be bad for student athletes in the long run. Don’t let them fool you. They echo the sentiments of earlier plantation owners who argued that allowing the sharecroppers to own the plantation would only hurt the sharecroppers. The folks running our modern-day plantation system, like Haskins and McKinley Boston, are far too comfortable exploiting young athletes to start putting on the pretense of looking out for students now.

R. Scott Rogers is the former editor in chief of the Daily. Comments can be directed to [email protected]