The student-athlete dilemma

Colleges should put more emphasis on the “student” portion of “student-athlete.”

For years, various sports commentators, newspaper columnists, players and fans have been trying to crack the student-athlete conundrum. The issue is figuring out a way for college students who participate in high-revenue Division I sports to be treated as students, with academics being their No. 1 priority, without being taken advantage of as they bring in billions of dollars to their schools.

It’s understandable that many fans and players feel it is unfair that coaches and athletics directors are paid multimillion-dollar salaries while the players do not receive a penny.

The shocking extent of how winning college teams can pay off big was demonstrated when University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino bought the Louisville sports information director a $50,000 car to say thank you after Pitino’s team won the national championship. Because of NCAA rules, Pitino could not extend similar gestures to any players of
the basketball team.

The problems

Many Division I student-athletes receive athletic scholarships, and in many cases full rides — a big deal given today’s inflated tuition rates and the growing necessity of a college diploma in today’s workforce. However, when there are such massive financial stakes in college athletics programs, abuse and corruption are almost inevitable.

When boosters of college athletics offer players cash under the table, it’s hard for student-athletes to say no. Every year, it seems, there continue to be NCAA-related scandals at various colleges and universities involving compensation deals and recruiting violations.

Earlier this month, a report by Sports Illustrated revealed shady practices within the Oklahoma State football program, including a number of star players allegedly receiving $25,000 under the table annually. Also in the report, ex-players claimed that tutors and even an assistant professor completed homework assignments
for team members.

While the extent of the potential infractions at Oklahoma State is extreme, student-athletes receiving payments or having their schoolwork done for them is not uncommon.

In 1999, the NCAA gave the University of Minnesota four years of probation after it learned the men’s basketball program was involved in “widespread and intentional” academic fraud. Earlier that year, the Pioneer Press reported that a tutor had admitted to writing more than 400 papers for players over five years. More than a decade later, it’s clear that academic fraud continues to be a problem in Division I sports.

Potential solutions

Rather than try to solve the problems of college athletics by making student-athletes more like salaried professional athletes, colleges should place more emphasis on their academics and regular student life. This can be done in a number of ways.

In June, the Minnesota Daily reported on a culture shift that led to significant academic improvement of the Gophers football team. Head coach Jerry Kill said that simply making players go to class had a big impact.

“It’s amazing what happens when kids go to class, are on time and do what they’re supposed to,” Kill said in the June article.

The Minnesota Student Association has also made it easier for players to participate in student life. Last week, the Daily reported that MSA unanimously passed a new bylaw allowing University athletics teams and spirit squads to apply for voting representation in student government.

The NCAA, as well as a number of athletics departments, has done a poor job emphasizing the importance of academics in the lives of student-athletes. They have subsequently created a culture in which under-the-table payments and academic fraud are not uncommon.

However, coaches, administrators, students and players can change the shady culture of college athletics by demonstrating their commitment to the ideal that academic careers take priority over athletics.