At the recent Track and Field championship in Eugene, I heard numerous announcements and saw commercials on the big screen about “student athletes”. I don’t like big screen ads during competition, since it is distracting, and I doubt the money generated goes to help students in financial difficulty or to pay grad students better,

It appears the NCAA is pushing the term “Student athlete” vigorously, as former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is suing them about not receiving compensation for the NCAA’s use of pictures of former “student athletes”.  He was joined by Oscar Robertson, who puts Mr. O’Bannon in lofty company.  O’Bannon was one of the few who succeeded professionally in his sport.  He led UCLA to the NCAA basketball championship in 1995.  He was drafted 9th but played only 2 years in the NBA and 8 years in Europe.  He now sells cars in Las Vegas.  He disappeared, but his reappearance now may be the most important thing he does in his life: change the sham that college football and basketball are played by “student athletes.”

Universities generate $4.5 billion from football and basketball alone, enough to cancel 190,000  student loans of $24K, the average for Oregon.  Or pay grad students better.  Or pay the players who actually do the work, not those who benefit from such work.  Alabama’s football coach makes $5.5 million; Arizona’s basketball coach $2 million, and he is far from the best paid.  The median salary of an associate (tenured) professor of physics is $70,000.   In Eugene, Matthew Knight Arena cost $227 million, a 2002 “facelift” at Autzen Stadium was $20 million.  The NCAA generates nearly $1 billion, mostly from the “March Madness” basketball tournament.  I heard numerous times 89 championships and 450,000 “student athletes,” with 90% of the revenue returning to the schools.  Why would the NCAA be saying what per cent goes back to the schools, unless they felt they were under fire?

So, $100,000,000 remains, and I write the number, because seeing it is often useful. The $4,500,000,000 ($4.5 billion) is one-seventh of what America spends on the NIH, which I think does a lot more good for people, but I might be wrong.  Sports are perhaps more important than finding cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The issue the NCAA doesn’t appear to understand, or at least doesn’t want to admit, is that football and basketball are different:  athletes and coaches involved in these sports are not the same as athletes and coaches in other sports.  John Calipari at Kentucky has well over a $35 million package for the rest of the decade.  An assistant football coach makes 6 figures, one has made a million; an assistant track and field coach makes about $20-40K.  Look it up.  I did.

The question for the NCAA is this: how much should men’s basketball and football players be paid?  It isn’t “whether” but “how much?”  These players are abusing their young bodies, not mentally mature, and vulnerable to being used.  They often do not finish college, taking a slim chance they will have a pro career, that in the case of even O’Bannon was short. The probability a college football player’s playing professionally is 2%; basketball is 1%.  OK, 1.2%.  The probability of graduating without a degree and without playing a professional sport is a minimum 15-30 times higher, approaching 70% in some places. These players are not going to find good jobs, their joints worse than mine, and I am 3 times older.  Football brain damage isn’t even being factored in here.

The concept of “student athlete” works if it is a Dartmouth runner who loves to run but must meet high standards of an Ivy League school.  The runner may perform well enough to be in the 5000 meter finals in Eugene, but he was lapped well before the end. This is a student athlete.  He loves track, but his life work will be something else.  Dartmouth, like all Ivy League schools, does not offer athletic scholarships.  If a university does, it is subsidizing an athlete, not a student.  This to me, a Dartmouth alumnus, is an important distinction.  Only a third of the 450,000 get athletic scholarships; four sports: football, men and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball, give full rides.  Is that payment?  If it is, then they aren’t primarily students.

Football and basketball players are too often athletes who happen to attend classes.  Their graduation rates approach 70%, better than it was, but a significant number of programs graduate fewer than half. What was their major? I doubt it was physics, chemistry, mathematics, English, or literature.  Many athletes on full athletic scholarships are a farm team for the pros, leaving college when they believe they can turn professional.  To put their faces or names on a shirt, while they are in college, so that the NCAA or the school can make money, is using them as pawns.  This happened to Michigan’s “Fab Five” 20 years ago.

There are student athletes, and there are student athletes.  The NCAA compares both equally, and they are not.  The volleyball coach at the University of Arizona knew full well that successful recruiting and funding of his program depended upon a successful football and basketball program. Eleven of Arizona’s 13 programs listed lost money, including volleyball.  The profits from men’s football and basketball were about $26 million, more than enough to compensate.  Graduation percentages are tricky, and I don’t like the 6 year definition; I got through Dartmouth in 4, and the Dartmouth man who ran the 5000 at the NCAAs will likely do it in 4, too.

I am concerned about big corporations buying advertising, using handsome young men and pretty young women with nice voices to push a toxic agenda, be it chemical, like ExxonMobil, or sport, like the NCAA.  Money talks, it talks too much, and it is time to shut it up. Money could be used to pay for good professors, not coaches, lessen the burden of student debt, develop first rate researchers, writers, educators, and try to lift more poor out of poverty.  Ads? Request retired people like me to help tutor or use our experiences and wisdom.  Bet they wouldn’t cost much on a Jumbotron.   This is the 21st century.  We need educated people to understand the growing complexity of this world. Fox News has a simple answer for everything.  There are few simple answers, and that makes life difficult. Instead of embracing complexity, we pay tens of millions to a coach to help young men put a ball through a metal rim.  If your team wins, you feel better about life. Is escape the point?

When I cared about basketball, O’Bannon was a name to be feared in Arizona.  Now, I wish him every bit of success off the court.  Stay with this cause, sir, for this is where you may make your mark in life.  I bet you never expected that.





One Response to “STUDENT-ATHLETES”

  1. Dennis Says:

    What are their majors? I can’t speak to other campuses, but I can speak to mine. The majority of the Aggie “student”-athletes graduate with concoct-your-own majors: Bachelor of Individualized Studies or Bachelor of Applied Studies. These were intended to distance (outreach) programs for citizens who couldn’t get to the campus to complete a more conventional program.

    For example, someone who has an Associate’s and certification as a radiology tech and needs a baccalaureate degree to move up the employment ladder was in the target group. The idea was that the student had completed a “major” in getting the certification. So the university would look at their credits and develop a “degree completion” program that filled the holes left by the focus on technical training.

    Instead, the athletics programs latched onto it like a hungry infant at mommy’s breast. The programs are flexible. As long as some justification can be cobbled together for studying (say) 19th C Russian literature and Criminal Justice and a dash of Philosophy (I wanna major in Dostoyevsky), the University is good with it. And the athletes are free to be at practice. Everyone wins, except the education system.

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