Sunday, April 10, 2011

Student-Athletes or Athlete-Students?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is perhaps the first thing you think of when college athletics comes to mind, and rightfully so. There are nearly 1,300 member institutions in three divisions that participate in 23 sports for a championship and up to 87 total sanctioned sports. For over 420,000 young men and women, their association with the Association is a mutual trade-off. They get to play the sport they love and, in exchange, the NCAA will pay for their college expenses via an athletic scholarship.

Open and shut, right? Not exactly.

For starters, the 447 total members in Division III don't offer any athletic scholarships because theirs is an emphasis of academics over athletics. Student-athletes at those schools can still qualify for academic scholarships, but it's not the same as having everything paid off unless they stay in-state or has a family with deep pockets.

For the remaining schools in Divisions I and II, they do give out full-ride athletic scholarships, but it's not as binding as once thought. For instance, I know a volleyball player at a major Division I institution that got such a scholarship, but after her freshman year, she's no longer with the team. She wasn't a mediocre player, either. I don't know the details since I'm nowhere near her anymore (we went to high school together), but I think it's a risky proposition to be dropped from a sport she's played for the longest time, unless she did something incredibly heinous. And that much I doubt.

Then there are the student-athletes who purposefully leave before graduation. Those are the ones that make a mockery of everything the NCAA stands for. They go to college and play a year or three – depending on the sport they're in – before filing paperwork to enter their name into the draft of the respective league they wish to join. To them, going to class would be a distraction from honing their skills to do the one thing they want to do. And it doesn't involve school.

Granted, those who are one-and-done or three-and-out are in the minority. Approximately 1% of all student-athletes go on to make a career out of their sport, and most of these are in football and men's basketball, the big 1-2 punch that helps fund 95% of the rest of an institution's athletic programs.

To support this finding, the NCAA airs a lot of commercials that end the same, "Just about all (student-athletes) will be going pro in something other than sports."

But there is still an unresolved issue here. It's not so much about whether student-athletes should be paid or not. They shouldn't. Rather, it's about making them stick to their commitment and achieve the one thing that will advance them further than any high-paying professional contract: an education.

Last week, I heard Ralph Nader on Outside the Lines say that the best way to curtail the corruption is to abolish athletic scholarships altogether, calling it "big business." His idea is to reward student-athletes through their academic performance and needs based financial aid similar to FAFSA, thereby putting the control of the game back in the hands of the institution and not a student-athlete's head coach.

However, I don't agree with the former presidential candidate here, namely because the academically smartest athletes aren't always the most superior athletes. Don't get me wrong, I want to see them graduate, too, but the revenue based off their performance is what allows them to continue receiving a "free" education.

I think the best way is to keep the student-athlete under scholarship for as long as they receive their bachelor's degree, with a maximum of four academic school years. Not only would they benefit themselves in the long run, but everyone else in society, too.

Remember, collegiate sports are nice and all, but they're only games that end by the first quarter of one's life here on Earth. Keep the student in student-athlete, and they'll be a success far after the clock hits triple zeros.

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