“We crafted the term student athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” Walter Byers, 1st Executive Director of the NCAA
The student athlete is an image many of us are familiar with. It’s glory is rooted directly in the American Dream. A talented youngster works hard, and gets good at a sport. He (and now she as well) attends a college for a discount or for free, and earns an education they couldn’t have accessed without their athletic skills. And at the end of their college career, they may be drafted to live out the dream of playing professional sports. But if not, at least the athlete’s skills helped propel them to a quality education. Sounds great right?
To be sure, there are myriad benefits to the experience of playing Divison I college sports. It certainly helps a person build and keep a work ethic. If the player stays healthy, they will complete their education for a cheaper price than the rest of us. And if they’re one of the less than 2% of college athletes who make it to the pros, well, we all know the kind of money professional athletes make.
But there’s no denying that this system has just as many drawbacks: The difficult balance of student-athlete life. The risk of injury. The legitimacy of the education in question. It seems, while the benefits seem to reward the players, coaches, schools, even the NCAA itself, the drawbacks to this system seems to disproportionately affect one group in particular: the student athletes themselves.
The NCAA has claimed that student athletes should not be paid precisely because they are students. They are not employees; they are there for an education. And the NCAA sees this education as the sole form of necessary compensation. But there is more and more evidence mounting which says that a student-athletes education may not be of the same quality as that received by their non-athlete peers. Oh and by the way, if you’re there on a scholarship and you get injured, say goodbye to said scholarship. There are virtually no protections in place to allow student-athletes to get to finish their education in the event they are physically unable to honor their athletic commitments. In fact, remember that quote at the beginning, where Walter Byers talks about crafting the term student athlete? The reason it was crafted was to prevent football players from being eligible for workman’s compensation in the event of injury.
The fact is, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that student athletes do not receive the protections that they deserve, either physically or economically. The fact remains that no protections are in place for college athletes if they get injured. A recruit could get a full scholarship to the school of his or her dreams, and suffer an injury in the first season, and lose their scholarship. I’m not suggesting a salary is the answer to such a problem, but the fact remains that these kids get hung out to dry in such situations, and left with few choices.
Now, I don’t think it’s fair to say that college athletes deserve the pay of pros; or the lavish lifestyle for that matter. I’m not denying the fact that these kids are at the school to play sports. I doubt they, their parents, or anyone at the school would deny that to be the case. These kids want to play, and they gain valuable leadership experience, as well as the knowledge of what it means to be truly dedicated to something 100%, a feeling few college students truly live. What I am saying is that these kids are not at this school ONLY to play sports. They are there to get an education too. And the fact is these kids have worked their entire lives to get to that point. And to abandon them because of an unfortunate injury, or to emphasize athletics over education is not only dishonest, it is immoral. It implies that these kids are only valuable as financial chess-pieces. And it calls into question the primary motivation of their schools. Are these schools primarily here to educate the next generation, or are they here to bolster the budget with competitive teams? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see these two as mutually exclusive.
The fact remains protections need to be put in place so that students aren’t left out to dry when they hit unexpected obstacles in their college career. And their educations need to be examined, emphasized, and meaningful. Because as we hear all the time, they’re students first, and athletes second. Not the other way around.