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Should Athletic Scholarships Be Abolished?
 by Stephen D. Landfield
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

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