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Let Them Major in Football

Heisman A+

Now that I’ve tackled Israel/Palestine and the Bible, let’s get to something important: college athletes.

The NCAA has been long criticized for the shocking discrepancy between the billions in profits taken in by universities for football and basketball and the lack of any monetary compensation to the players. Players may not be compensated for the use of their likeness on TV, advertising, or video games, and they may not accept gifts. Instead, Division I student athletes receive compensation in the form of full-ride scholarships and a “college education”. However, since many athletes come from very poor means and have little savings, many receive inadequate medical care, (kind of important for athletes) are unable to visit their families, and some even have difficulty feeding themselves.

Some of the most shocking problems are finally being addressed in that the “cost of attendance” is being expanded to cover $2000-$5000 for miscellaneous costs in addition to tuition, fees, books, room, and board. That is an extremely small stipend, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I fail to see how student athletes can’t be seen in the same light as students in the sciences. Grad students, and sometimes undergrads, are paid a reasonable stipend because we do research which brings clout and grant money to the university. Grad students in the humanities don’t get such a stipend. Student athletes also go above and beyond their academics to bring clout and money to the university. What’s wrong with giving them a legitimate stipend that you can live on?

That seems like an easy problem to solve, so what I really want to talk about is the more difficult problem concerning student athletes that few seem to be talking about. When it comes to the major sports like basketball and football, the “student” aspect is a joke.

Division I athletes spend over 40 hours per week in practices and training for their sport. It’s a full-time job that often conflicts with academics and serves as a major distraction. Because student athletes are not chosen for their academic prowess, they often struggle to maintain minimum eligibility. They often choose the easiest classes, and barely pass. Some can’t even read or write.

Then there are the double standards and cheating. No university wants its main moneymaker losing eligibility because of a stupid exam that no one cares about. Universities turn a blind eye to lax academic standards and reports of academic dishonesty. It’s nothing new. One of my professors told me that, when he was in grad school proctoring an exam, he caught a future Superbowl MVP blatantly copying off a cheat sheet. He reported the incident, and University did nothing. This is an obvious symptom of the status quo. Would you care, as a fan of college sports, if your favorite team’s best quarterback cheated on a math exam or didn’t attend biology class? I don’t, and I’m a smug academic with a stick up my ass.

So, what’s going on here? Student athletes are compensated in the form of a sham degree. If you consider college to be a mere transaction for which a degree is the goal, this may look like a good deal to you. However, if a former Division I athlete comes to me looking for a job, I ought to seriously question the validity of his Bachelor’s degree.

It’s sort of like hiring someone to help you load a truck in exchange for a letter of recommendation that testifies to their laboratory skills. They may have good lab skills, but the job has nothing to do with those skills, and it played no part their hiring. It is obviously more accurate and honest to give them a letter of recommendation that says they were good at loading the truck.

So, here’s my central thesis: Why not let student athletes major in their sport?

Let football players be football majors. Let basketball players be basketball majors. Let those majors be accredited. It sounds to me like a useful major with an obvious career track, which can’t be said for every major. Let them take classes in sports psychology, physical education, and sports history, but most of their course credit would come from games and practices. There’s no doubt that it could lead to a career in professional sports, not obviously more daunting than a career in music or art history. Furthermore, there are plenty of careers for coaches, personal trainers, and physical education instructors, which is an obvious tract for athletes to pursue already.

Division I teams will likely require that all players major in the sport. That’s fine. Great music programs usually stipulate that only music majors are eligible to audition. Coaches could then demand the same taxing practice schedules without cutting as drastically into academics. Students will therefore be less inclined to cheat. Most importantly, their degree accurately reflects how they spent their time in college and the scholarship that they earned in the first place.

The other tension that would be relieved is on the university academics. Colleges want their degrees to be meaningful, and they know as well as anyone that practicing 40hr per week significantly detracts from coursework. Universities may now, if they wish, set a time limit for university-sponsored extracurricular activities. If you want to play Division I basketball, then you’ll just have to make it your major. If your university is Division III, there’s no way that student athletes should be spending that much time practicing anyway. As a chemistry major, I certainly tried the patience of my chemistry professors with all the time I spent in music ensembles and political organizations. If I had committed >40hr per week to other organizations, my professors would have been right to demand a greater focus on my major, or insist that I change my major to music.

Football and Basketball majors would still be required to take liberal arts courses that the university requires for the same reason all student are required to do so. Perhaps that will take some creative course selection and extra tutoring, but certainly an athlete that can earn a full ride scholarship and bring in billions in revenue is worth the effort. Extra tutoring tends to be provided to any student willing to seek it out, and athletes will have more time to take advantage if their academic requirements are limited to the liberal arts. It’s not nothing, but it will be a dramatic shift toward lightening the load.

Finally, it frees the student athletes to enjoy college life. One of the most valuable parts of college is being part of the community, and I’m sure that being a Division I athlete confines you to practice and classes with little time in between. Even at a Division III school like my undergrad, athletes rarely participated in any other extracurriculars, and the ones that did found it very taxing.

What are the down sides? Many student athletes gain full-ride scholarships, or even just admission because of their athletic prowess, despite their lack of academic ability. These are people who don’t hope to become professional athletes, but earn a ticket to college that would have never been possible without their being an athlete.

If you require that Division I athletes be full-time athletes, you remove this free ride to college, at least in the form of a different degree. However, if you don’t have the grades to go to college for communications, I don’t think that you should be going to college in the first place. If someone was given a full ride scholarship to play the piano, wouldn’t it be odd if they accepted the scholarship and then majored in marketing? Sometimes that would cause the student to lose the scholarship, and that’s my point.

There certainly are college athletes who might be offended by this idea. These are students who sacrifice sleep and social life to commit fully to their team as well as their major. They are true student-athletes and admirable for their work ethic. However, we already have a name for these types of students: double majors. Calling them such would change nothing, and give them nothing but more recognition for their hard work.

It seems so simple, obvious, and honest, I’m amazed that I can’t find any good examples of it being discussed. Let me know if you have heard of such a thing, or if you have any objections that I didn’t think of.

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