Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thoughts on Student Athletes

   Anyone who has known me for more than 2.5 seconds knows that I bleed orange.  As an Oklahoma State University alum, former member of the Cowboy Marching Band and Spirit Band, Homecoming Steering Committee member, athletic training major, and Zeta Tau Alpha alumna, I've been a part of just about every aspect of OSU.  My parents are alum, my sis is a double alum (bachelor's and master's degrees), my cousins are alum...I've grown up very orange.  Needless to say, I was very sad about the allegations made against the university and its personnel in the SI articles this week. 

Circa 2005, before I fully converted him. 

   I am not so blinded by orange as to think that every word is false.  I personally knew people (non-athletes) that were involved with less-than-honest academic dealings, smoked things they shouldn't, drank underage and to excess, had unsafe and indiscreet relationships with other students, and lots of other things stereotypical of "the college experience." I would expect no less than to see that same behavior within the student athlete population.  Do I think it's right?  Absolutely not.  Do I think it's their own fault?  Not entirely.  The sex, the drugs...that's your own stupid decisions.  If other people can choose not to, you can too.  Academics, on the other hand...

   As many folks much more qualified to speak than I have expressed, there are athletes on college campuses who, if not for a sport, would never even be able to dream about attending their school.  Their high school performances, for whatever reason, were not up to admission standards.  Their tests scores were not high enough to qualify.  Sometimes that means a kid was lazy in high school and ought to be embarrassed.  Sometimes that means that a 2.4 high school GPA was the best he could do with what he had to work with, and his sport was likely the only reason he hadn't already dropped out of the world of academia.  The SI articles allege that some of these athletes were even functionally illiterate.  This to me speaks less about a scandal and more about a grievous failure on the parts of both the NCAA and the colleges themselves. 

   To generalize, there are basically two kinds of student athletes: good players who love the game, have a good head on their shoulders, will play through their eligibility, get a degree, and move on to live a normal life, and exceptional talents who play college ball as a means to sharpen their skills and get noticed by the pros.  They have no intention of getting a degree, and some of them couldn't get admitted to a major university even if they wanted a degree. (Disclaimer: please don't hear me saying that all exceptional athletes are dumb as dirt.  I am not.) Holding these two athletes to the same standard of academic eligibility is essentially unfair.  Because exceptional talent increases your odds of winning, and increased winning brings in increased revenue, recruiting high-talent athletes makes school a LOT of money.  No one denies that.  And truly, is that a bad thing?  Unfortunately, this may come at the cost of a student.  If you recruit exceptional athletes who are not good students and who have no interest in being good students, you do them a disservice.  You have now dropped a guy who is potentially years behind his peers academically into a classroom that is being taught way above his head, and expecting him to perform at the level of his peers.  Then punishing him when he does not. 

   The way I see it, which is certainly only one perspective, if we want college sports to be held to a standard of rule-keeping and order, which I do, we have two options.   We can change the admission criteria for our student athletes, or we can change the expectations of our student athletes.  If we want college athletes to truly be student athletes, Mr. All-Arounds, I think that's a fine objective.  We need to raise the minimum academic requirements to allow these athletes on the team.  Recruit students who will actually be successful in college, not just on the field.  We also need to be ready for a decline in the level of athleticism we pay to watch.  If we want to watch the highest possible level of athletics at the college level, we need to change our expectations of student athletes and equip them with what will truly help them live a successful life. 

   What if that means we allow them to declare "Professional Athletics" as a course of study?  This would not result in any sort of academic degree, but it could be structured with classes that will give those athletes valuable life skills: public speaking, basic accounting, reading and negotiating contracts, academic remediation if necessary for general courses.  That way, they could be enrolled in classes that would benefit them, that they could be successful in, and that would give them a stepping stone to their next phase of life.  Student athletes who didn't want to go pro could still pursue any degree they choose on scholarship, and those who would have been successful in college under the current system would still be successful.  We just give an option to those who would not have been, other than academic dishonesty.

   This has gotten long, and probably a little ranty.  I see the current college sports situation sort of the way I see healthcare in America.  It's broken.  I don't know how to fix it, but if we want it to last much longer and to actually benefit people, it needs to change.

   What are your thoughts on the SI articles?  The NCAA?  Student athletes? 


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