And now for something completely different …
Famed Civil Rights Movement historian Taylor Branch has made the news again, this time with an article about the exploitation of student athletes by institutions of higher education. He’s been interviewed about it, and Frank Deford has offered a pointed commentary on it.
As you might suspect, in the end most of this discussion is about college football and men’s basketball. There have been various incidents in other sports, but these are the biggies. The debate seems to be about paying the athletes.
I have a simpler solution. Change the tie between athletics and higher education. It’s as simple as that. Create a more powerful minor league development system financed by the professional leagues, who should demonstrate their awareness of their social responsibility by providing educational opportunities for athletes. Oh, keep the scholarship system open for those athletes who want to go to college; have the professional leagues draft them at eighteen, just like they do in hockey and baseball, and tell the professional leagues to take care of the finances down the road. I note no one is calling for baseball players or hockey players to be paid. That may be because they get to choose what they want to do.
I’ve had scholar athletes in the classroom. Some were very good students, and I enjoyed their presence and participation in class (I highlighted one last month in this blog). Others were not. My relationship with coaches and athletic departments suggested that too many coaches saw the academic side of things as an obstacle to their success, as if we were in a hostile relationship. Not all coaches, mind you, shared this attitude, but too many did: too often athletic departments call upon faculty to act as baby sitters for their players, and I for one don’t do that. Once, when I served as an informal advisor for a certain college basketball team (not ASU), the team GPA increased by half a point, but the coach really didn’t want someone else around (except when it came to working the officials’ table, as I did several times): a proposal to formalize the position failed, despite the demonstrated success of the idea.
For some players, college is a good idea, and they should make that choice, complete with scholarships as compensation. But it is time for colleges and universities to stop serving as developmental leagues for professional sports. You want to pay these guys? Fine. I see the merit in that argument. Better still, I maintain, to simply take this argument to its logical conclusion: tell the NFL and NBA to develop their own players. Let the player decide which route he wants to pursue.