Abolish the 'student-athlete' fiction

College football scandals will persist until players are given salaries and academics are made optional

September 01, 2011|By Paul Marx

Fifty big-time college presidents recently met at a retreat in Indianapolis to discuss the sordid state of college football. They left for home, and a new scandal made the news. This time it's at the University of Miami (which plays Monday's home opener at the University of Maryland). The scandal before that was at Ohio State. And while that one was still foremost in their minds, the presidents continued in their staunch belief that their players were student-athletes, basically amateurs. They proposed nothing that would make scandal less likely to touch them or their schools.

The Ohio State scandal forced the resignation of its coach, Jim Tressel, and made something of a fool out of the university president, E. Gordon Gee. Mr. Tressel had turned a blind eye to certain off-field activities of a few of his players, and Mr. Gee kind of thought Mr. Tressel had been wise to do so.

What the players did was considered a "violation" by the National College Athletic Association. The players had accepted "benefits," gifts of one kind and another. From the perspective of the NCAA, the Ohio State players, and now Miami's, committed serious transgressions. The Ohio State players had sold some of their memorabilia or taken advantage of good deals on cars. Miami's are said to have accepted money and other favors from boosters.

The NCAA's rules and regulations are based on the assumption that all intercollegiate athletics are an extra-curricular activity of full-time students pursuing a degree. The NCAA thinks the public should continue to believe that football players enroll at colleges for reasons that have nothing to do with football, like the availability of a particular course of study or the renown of its faculty. While a few players might give a thought to those things, 95 percent have no interest in such matters.

For the NCAA, there's nothing wrong with Coach Tressel's being paid $3.2 million a year while his players put their brains and bodies at risk, only to get a dormitory room and meals, free classes and free textbooks. Mr. Tressel understood the inequity of the arrangement and refused to turn in his players. He knew that while many of his players hoped to gain million-dollar pro contracts, in the meantime — coming from impoverished backgrounds, as most do — they had very little money.

Big-time college coaches lure players to their schools for football; the players' educations are not serious concerns. When they are alone in their studies, the college presidents know this. But apparently, given all the financial benefits their schools receive, none has the courage to stop all the double talk and acknowledge the disconnect between football and education.

Schools where football is a moneymaker should come clean and establish football as another for-profit enterprise, like the sale of rocking chairs and sweatshirts. College football should be operated the way a minor-league baseball team is operated. Instead of coaches getting their recruits to sign letters of intent in which promises are made to obey NCAA rules, the coaches should get them to sign simple fee-for-service contracts.

Players should not be required to enroll in the college and then worry about academic eligibility. (Although if a player wants to study for a degree while working as a football player, that could be easily arranged.)

Once the presidents make a clean separation between football and education, recruited players would still wear the schools' colors and play as hard as they could. There'd still be exciting games against traditional rivals. There would still be cheerleading and fight songs and halftime shows. However, players would receive a regular paycheck rather than some under-the-table benefit.

How different would that be from the way things are now? Not much. But players would no longer lose sleep in order to sit in on lectures they care nothing about. No longer would they be second-class citizens, forbidden to accept gifts. They'd be playing minor-league football sponsored by a college.

Until schools abandon the pretense that Saturday's heroes are student-athletes, the scandals will continue.

Paul Marx, a Towson resident, is professor emeritus at the University of New Haven and the author of "Jim Rouse: Capitalist/Idealist." His email is pppmarx@comcast.net.

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