|If, as they say, sports is a metaphor
for life, then certainly, it will also reflect all of life’s problems
and shortcomings. So, it is not surprising that one of the latest
conservative attacks is on the system of athletic scholarships, which
admittedly has failed many college athletes.
Writing last week, Wes Pruden suggests that
if Republicans really want to do something for Black America, they
should push for a ban on athletic scholarships. In support of his
proposition, Pruden points out that many Black athletes are enrolled in
snap courses, never challenged to learn anything, and likely will not
stay on to even graduate once their usefulness to their coach and their
sport is used up. He quotes some generally alarming statistics, such as
the fact that fewer than half of these “students” will actually
graduate. “In most successful football and basketball factories,” Pruden
contends, “barely one in ten Black athletes graduates.”
Certainly if these statistics are true,
it is a troubling indictment on the status of college athletics in
America. Still, I doubt very many people are really surprised, when you
consider the big money industry college athletics has become. Just turn
on NCAA Football, or March Madness Basketball and then consider what has
happened to college sports.
Still, Pruden’s draconian solution of
eliminating all college athletic scholarships is not only unrealistic,
it blindly fails to recognize that changes can be made to correct the
shortcomings of the system, and that there is simply no need to
euphemistically, “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Athletic prowess and success is the topic
of everyday conversation in cars, trains, offices and schools. Who won’t
be talking about the Superbowl in January? What boy grew up and didn’t
dream at least once about playing in the majors? For many in the
minority community, it has rightly or wrongly long been viewed as the
ticket out. Of course, reality is quite to the contrary. But, if there
is a shortcoming, it is in an educational system which fails to meet
their needs, and a lack of non-athletic role models, so that, without
disparaging Michael Jordan, everyone wants to “be like Mike.”
The fact is, athletic scholarships are
not all bad. There are over 150,000 undergraduate athletic
scholarships—worth over $600 million dollars—awarded each year by
colleges and universities in the United States. While the biggest
scholarships usually go to athletes in the major sports, such as
football, basketball or baseball, they are available to men and women in
35 different sports, from basketball to swimming, to handball. In
general, the concept of scholarships is a good one.
So, what can be done to address the
abuses of the scholarship system? The answer is plenty, if there is a
real will to reform. It is that lack of will to reform which has driven
the system to its sorry state today.
TIME Magazine noted that there is
an “obsession with winning and moneymaking that is pervading the noblest
ideals of both sports and education in America.” In the 1980s, 109
colleges and universities were censured, sanctioned or put on probation
by the NCAA. Graduation rates in some instances were below 30 percent.
Recruiting violations abounded. Unfortunately, these rates are still
abysmal in many instances. In fact, embarrassingly low.
The best place to turn for solutions
seems to be the report of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate
Athletics, released in June of 2001. The key point of the report is that
students who participate in athletics deserve the same rights and
responsibilities as all other students. So, for instance, college
athletes should be mainstreamed through the same academic process as
everyone else. Criteria for admissions, major and progress toward a
degree should be monitored.
Graduation rates can also be improved, if
there is a will to do so. For example, the report suggests that by 2007,
teams that do not graduate at least 50% of their players should be
banned from post-season play. If implemented, imagine how fast that
would improve graduation rates! Here’s another suggestion that, while
unlikely, would make a real improvement—the length of playing, practice
and post-seasons should be reduced to afford athletes a realistic
opportunity to complete their degrees.
And, for college athletes who are not
seriously seeking an education, the NBA and the NFL should follow the
example of baseball and develop a minor league system as an alternate
route to a professional sports career.
This column cannot even begin to address
the issues of commercial exploitation and marketing, which has turned
college sports into big business. Clearly, there is a need to take
control of the game back from the television networks and corporate
commercial interests. Is this likely to occur? Hardly.
I am not the least bit naive in making
these recommendations. The point however is this: the abuses in the
athletic scholarship system can be curbed. Reasonable graduation rates
can be achieved. The solutions are evident. What is needed is the
resolve to make the basic, fundamental changes to the system, insure
educational opportunity, and the ability to stand up to the powerful
corporate and market interests that have taken over college sports.
Until and unless these changes can be
forced, many college athletes will continue to be used for commercial
gain and then tossed—uneducated and unprepared for life—onto the garbage
heap of commercialism that has become big time college sports.
January 7, 2003
Practical Politics website