Student-Athlete or Athlete-Student?

Photo Credit: Scott Lewis/Charlotte News & Observer

Photo Credit: Scott Lewis/Charlotte News & Observer

Division I collegiate coaches and university board members take tremendous pride in educating their athletes to become great students and men. They claim to take great pride in instilling academic prowess to each and every player, as their “rules” state that athletes cannot play if they do not maintain a certain academic standard. While coaches and universities do enforce some of these academic guidelines to student-athletes, they will go out of their way to ensure athletic success comes before academics.

College Athletics mean so much more than educating athletes and preparing them for life after college. UNC’s academic scandal puts the entire subject into focus. Former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants, a starter for the 2005 National Championship squad, has repeatedly said that he and his teammates took phony courses during his time in Chapel Hill. He claims that the coaches and administrators all knew about the entire ordeal yet ignored the big picture since the team had so much potential on the court. According to McCants, most of the team majored in African-American studies, took bogus classes to remain academically eligible to play, and had tutors write their term papers.

Instead of taking tests, McCants added, players only took “paper classes”, for which others wrote for the players. The results do not lie: McCants’ transcripts show he did not receive a single A or B grade in his 10 non-African American studies classes while he received 10 A’s taking these “major” classes. Coaches and administrators who provided him with a full-ride “athletic scholarship” told him to ultimately show up and play, that his basketball success would take care of itself.

McCants is not alone. UNC’s commissioned reports state that several athletes, predominantly from the school’s men’s basketball and football teams, have played a role in the academic fraud over the past 20 years. How can you blame the students for prioritizing their athletic careers over their academic requirements?

First, these “students” received a full athletic scholarship from the school to play their respective sports to the best of their abilities. They have invested most of their childhoods to receive these scholarships and receive national attention for their athletic abilities. Many receive the full-ride offers to play for Division I schools before they turn 18 years old, so they do not know any better other than to play sports to the best of their abilities. Many of them choose a school based on the quality of the team’s coaches and athletic department, instead of the quality of the school’s academics.

Furthermore, the national sports rights bubble, especially in men’s basketball and football, has spiraled out of control. The NCAA and each of the major Division I schools and conferences have extremely lucrative television agreements with some of the nation’s largest media companies. Here are the biggest ones, from the November 3 issue of Sports Business Journal:

  • Big East Conference and Fox – 12 years/$500 million
  • Pac-12 Conference and ESPN/Fox – 12 years/$3 billion
  • SEC and CBS – 15 years/$825 million
  • BCS and ESPN = 12 years/$5.64 billion
  • Big Ten and Fox/ESPN – 10 years/$1 billion
  • NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament and CBS/Turner – 15 years/$10.8 billion
  • ACC and ESPN – 15 years/$4.2 billion
  • Big 12 Conference and ESPN/Fox – 13 years/$2.5 billion
  • American Athletic Conference and ESPN/CBS – 7 years/$126 billion
  • Mountain West Conference and ESPN/CBS Sports Network – 7 years/$116 million

The combined values nearly reach $30 BILLION…. for the rights to broadcast collegiate sports. Yet, the athletes, who actually participate in these big-time events, do not receive any financial compensation other than an “athletic scholarship”. With the plethora of money dished out by TV networks, they demand a certain level of quality from the participating athletes. Most of the major networks invest over $1 billion annually on college athletics, so they must showcase a presentable product to a mass audience in order to retain sponsorship and advertisement money.

Additionally, athletes must prepare to face further public scrutiny, especially with the 24/7 sports media cycle via social media. Poor 21-year old Kaelin Clay of Utah, who became a national laughingstock after letting go of the football just prior to reaching the endzone. Instead of scoring a 78-yard touchdown to give the Utes a 14-0 lead, Oregon returned the fumble 99 yards for the touchdown to tie the game at 7 and switch the momentum of the game. Oregon ended up cruising to a victory, as Clay’s gaffe became the turning point of the game. He owned up to the mistake after the game, publicly apologizing on Twitter for his actions.

Though Clay deserves blame for his role and his premature celebration became a great teaching point for coaches everywhere, Clay still plays in college, where he is still a student and not getting paid to play football. Yet, other collegiate athletes everywhere should pay close attention to the aftermath of Clay’s mistake. He became the top-trending topic on Twitter for over 12 hours following his fumble. The entire country quickly found out about this incident, which will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on his name.

Kaelin Clay became a national laughingstock after fumbling the ball prior to reaching the endzone.  Oregon returned the fumble for a touchdown (Photo Credit: Tom Smart/Deseret News)

Kaelin Clay became a national laughingstock after fumbling the ball prior to reaching the endzone. Oregon returned the fumble for a touchdown (Photo Credit: Tom Smart/Deseret News)

In order to avoid national humiliation, collegiate athletes must display unyielding commitment to their respective sports. If they succeed, they get immediate stardom but if they fail, they will subject themselves to some non-stop criticism. The amount of money involved with these sports magnifies each and every event and puts 18-22 year-old athletes under an inordinate amount of pressure to perform.

How in the world can these collegiate athletes even concentrate on academics, when their national livelihoods are at stake with each and every game? Look at football and basketball, where teams play most games under sold-out crowds and in front of a nationally televised audience. Colleges receive a substantial portion of their overall revenues from athletics; hence, Division I universities invest millions of dollars to hire elite athletic directors and coaches.

Yet, athletes, the ones actually risking their bodies and combining their academic work in addition to playing sports, do not receive anything other than an education, housing, and food. On the outset, that may sound like adequate compensation but with the national pressure these athletes face every game and the billions of dollars invested in college athletics, they deserve far more.

College athletics has become a full-time commitment, with non-stop training and game preparation required to perform at a high level. The schools ultimately could care less about the education of their players, as long as their sports teams are succeeding. That will give colleges more revenue, which they can use however they prefer to use the money. Meanwhile, most of the college athletes do not receive anything from the schools as soon as they conclude their athletic participation at the universities.

Ultimately, schools have continued to exploit these “student-athletes” and have taken advantage of them in every way possible. UNC’s academic scandal should bring athletes’ financial compensation and these “athletic scholarships” back to light. For all of the NCAA’s revenue-generating models currently out there, they must either pay their athletes or provide better assistance to them. No matter how much academic support universities may claim to give to their student-athletes, the national scrutiny forces these collegiate players to fully focus their efforts on their respective sports. The primary purpose of college is to prepare students for a strong life in the “real world”; instead of just merely “passing” the minimum requirements, universities at all levels need to act proactively to ensure a stronger livelihood for the student-athletes.