Last Sunday, a shocking but not surprising edition of Bob Edwards' Weekend ran a documentary called "Dropping The Ball" . It described the horrific way college athletes are treated, with bogus "paper" courses that require no work at all and other classes that are tailored for the uninvolved and semi-literate.
In fact, around 30% of college athletes, in the "for-profit" sports -- basketball and football -- read at somewhere around the third grade level and don't progress much beyond that by graduation. Some can't read at all.From a cold Capitalist viewpoint, this set-up makes sense. These kids aren't students. They're professional athletes, the best kind of professional athletes: the ones you don't have to pay.
A woman who teaches remedial reading at the University of South Carolina – the epicenter of the most recent scandal – came forward with the truth and has been rewarded by hate mail and death threats. But professors at other schools have corroborated her story. These jocks take the deal university athletic programs offer because they're dreaming of a career in the NBA or the NFL. Some of them achieve that goal, but most of them don’t. The ones who are left behind face a grim future. After four years at college they remain uneducated. Their chances of a successful adult life are slim to none. Like old race horses who can no longer run fast enough, they are discarded and forgotten.
The players have to work a 50 hour week to stay in shape for the big games, and it’s impossible for them to carry a full university course load at the same time. No one expects them to. No one treats them like students or expects any meaningful academic performance from them. Too much money is riding on them keeping their undivided attention on the game. This is a business and the business model works. No one is going to change it. So is the only solution to entirely dismantle the institution of NCAA sports?
I don’t think so.
The actual solution is simple. All it requires is for the schools to be honest and fair. I know that’s asking a lot, especially the honesty part, but here’s how it could work.
Athletes are signed for what is essentially a four year “farm team” semi-pro contract with the school. No fake classes, no lies and cheating, just a straightforward acknowledgment of the truth. After four years, ten to fifteen percent of them will go into professional sports, more than half will graduate with valid academic credentials and a solid start on a bright future. The thirty percent we’re talking about will be given the opportunity to re-enroll as actual students, with a four-year full ride scholarship to thank them for their previous unpaid labor, and a generous amount of tutoring and other special help to get them up to speed. No sports, no glory, no pro scouts buying them fancy dinners – just a fair shot at a real education. That’s what the schools promise now, with absolutely no intention of delivering.
They have to start making good on that promise.
And it could work. However academically challenged these kids might be, they have learned some crucial lessons during their years on the University basketball court or gridiron: teamwork, loyalty and most of all, discipline and the value of hard work. With help they can learn to apply those lessons to the classroom.
They deserve a chance to try.