Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On the Embarrassment of Higher Education and Student Athletes

Here are a few headlines from the last few days:
The last headline doesn't quite tell the whole story.  Here is how the article begins:
Joseph Agnew was once a Friday night superstar. A defensive back, he led his Texas high school football team to consecutive state titles in 2004 and 2005. He was also an A student.

Agnew went on to Rice, a first-rate university with an improving football program. But things didn’t quite work out for him, at least football-wise. The coach who had recruited him left after his freshman year. Agnew struggled to find playing time and had a string of injuries. After his sophomore season, he was cut from the team. The next year, he lost his scholarship and later left Rice.
 Somebody should be embarrassed.  Coaches get paid, booster influence is on the rise, and student athletes continue to be treated as means to the much larger aim of winning games and entertaining the masses. 

 This is not to say that the answer is simply to pay student athletes. This is too simplistic and probably unfeasible.  But this is not to say that better answers do not exist.  Here are a few few suggestions, from Jonathan Mahler, a writer for the Times:
They could start by declaring freshmen ineligible for intercollegiate sports to encourage them to focus on their classwork. They could take the scholarship status of athletes out of the hands of coaches, who have the power to cut off a player with a 4.0 grade point average but a bum knee. Most of all, they could place strict limits on full-contact football practices, a step recently taken by the Ivy League, so the minds they’re developing in the classroom aren’t being hastened toward dementia on the field. 

This is just the beginning. The real strides would come when universities declared a truce in the arms race of new athletics facilities and agreed to cap the soaring pay of coaches. Earlier this summer, John Calipari signed a contract extension with Kentucky that guarantees him $3.8 million a year — nearly 10 times what the president of an average state university makes.

Better yet, why not compel football and basketball programs to contribute a modest percentage of their revenue to their universities’ primary mission, education? These programs are heavily dependent on their universities. They leverage their brands, use their facilities and take up more than their share of their administrations’ time. (How do you think the Ohio State president, E. Gordon Gee, spent his summer? Reviewing course offerings, or dealing with the Jim Tressel mess?)
 The NCAA is looking into the matter.  Maybe they are finally embarrassed enough.  They are considering, among other things, extending scholarship offers from one year renewables to multi-years; increasing scholarship offers through stipends; and simplifying the NCAA rulebook. 

For one, I am not holding my breath.  Self-interest will rule the day, and that usually is bad news for student athletes.

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