Venkata: What UMBC’s victory can mean to all NCAA athletes

Things could be a lot better for our student-athletes.

Uma Venkata

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County may be an athletic underdog, but since 1966, it has discreetly soared to the top level of academic standards for every student — including athletes. Is it possible for a school to focus this much on every student’s academics and still enjoy athletic fame? Yes, because UMBC beat Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament on March 16 by a cathartic 20 points. (They lost to Kansas State on Sunday, 43-50).

The NCAA raised academic standards for student-athletes, but it’s not enough. If you’re not a student-athlete, it’s difficult to put yourself in the shoes that some of them run around in all day. Let’s try to do that here.

On a regular day, say you’ve got a team workout in the morning. Then you have class, team practice and finally you can go home to catch up on all the schoolwork you didn’t have time for yet. It’s fair to say that most student-athletes pour most of their energy into their sports rather than their majors. And unless they’re going to play professionally after graduation, this schedule isn’t a good investment in their futures at all. Plus, playing sports is basically a full-time job, but NCAA athletes are never paid.

Unpaid status can spell disaster for some student-athletes. NCAA players have reported going hungry while pouring all their energy into their sport every day. Some student-athletes regularly spend 40 hours a week or more on practice, which clearly doesn’t leave much time for school, work and rest for their bodies. However, to the University of Minnesota’s credit, student-athletes are well taken care of in this respect — they receive clothing, iPads and, to varying degrees of subsidy, housing, food and tuition. Free, regular private tutoring is available to every athlete. Land O’ Lakes has sponsored an excellent new private compound. But these endowments avoid the real problem.

There have been arguments that NCAA athletes should be part-time students, given the minimal amount of time they have for school. But that’s just a disservice — by saying that, we tell student-athletes that we value sport entertainment more than their futures. A strong academic record ensures far more than four years of sports.

I don’t think my entertainment is more important than student-athletes’ future incomes. The NCAA claims their athletes are students first, athletes second — but all I see is evidence to the contrary. College should be for learning, and shouldn’t be liable to disappear completely if a student-athlete is so unlucky as to be injured enough not to play. And when college is over, every student deserves to have spent that time on earning the degree and grades necessary for a fulfilling and desirable job.

UMN could take a leaf from UMBC’s book — school should really be every student’s first concern. And if it is, sports aren’t doomed. Sports are fun, but they are no guarantee of post-collegiate employment. If the NCAA were so respectful to its athletes as to raise the GPA requirement even more — or if UMN were to raise it past the current 2.0 — then student-athletes would be forced to focus even more on school. Or we could reduce practice time, allowing student-athletes to study more and maybe even accrue work experience.

P.J. Fleck tells us that while we row the boat, we can’t see the future, we can’t control it — but he doesn’t mention that nothing should stop us for preparing for it. And for all but a lucky few student-athletes, the future is going to be a whole new ballgame.