If you’ve watched any NCAA football or basketball this holiday season, you’ve consumed the trademark commercial messaging celebrating "amateur student-athletes" whose talents on the court or playing field help them earn world-class university degrees and "go pro in something other than sports." The athletic scholarship in American higher education is a great deal, unique in the world.
But football and basketball players in the top-ranked NCAA Division I programs are getting a bad shake. Their feats entertain us during the College Football Playoff and March Madness, and these players generate the massive revenues that accrue to support the whole college sports industry. Because so much is riding on their performances, though, they don’t get the education they’ve been promised.
A simple reform measure - lifetime athletic scholarships - would help correct this disparity. Such scholarships aren’t the norm now because adopting them would mean acknowledging the dysfunction at the heart of the big-time programs. They simply demand too much to allow players to be athletes and scholars.
Lifetime scholarships - the ability to return to school and complete a degree at any time in one’s life - are employed by some Division I schools. These deals shouldn’t be optional, however, especially in the Power 5 conferences. The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern Conference have ample resources; they should mandate such scholarships for all their revenue-producing football and basketball players. (Because of Title IX, the law requiring gender equity in education, lifetime scholarships would likely end up being extended to all scholarship athletes, but men’s basketball and football players should be the first priority.)
Fans and alumni may think athletic scholarships are a form of payment for services - students play for their schools; their schools pay for an excellent education and a useful degree. But that’s not really what the deal is about, according to NCAA rules of amateurism (which have, so far, been upheld by American courts). Instead, the college sports system is predicated on these concepts: playing sports while earning a degree enhances educational experiences and outcomes, and athletic scholarships aren’t payment because playing sports is itself educational.
The NCAA and schools’ PR machines tout rising graduation rates and team GPAs to support their amateurism, scholar-athlete concepts. But for those of us with intimate knowledge of college sports, they’re a smokescreen. I’ve witnessed the system firsthand as a scholarship track athlete at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a volunteer coach and now as an Arizona State University history lecturer who also works with Sun Devil Athletics.
Well-intended policies, such as academic support centers (for players struggling to balance full-time course work and 50 hours a week dedicated to sports) and metrics like the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate end up being incentives for, at best, athlete hand-holding. The progress-rate calculations aren’t pegged to the same standards non-athletes have to meet and, as one report put it, they "invite widespread academic fraud." (It doesn’t help that coaches and administrators may earn financial bonuses tied to the rates.)
For football and basketball players in particular, academic "help" mostly amounts to restricted educational choices, "clustering" in athlete-friendly majors and the prioritization of athletic eligibility over academic rigor. Extending the timeline for meeting graduation requirements would mitigate some of those education-avoidance maneuvers.
The number of athletes in big-time football and basketball programs is small compared to the student bodies of the schools, but doing right by them would get to the heart of the complaints about the system’s exploitation of student-athletes, the scandals associated with the programs, and the way athletics can undermine the academic mission of schools. Mandated lifetime scholarships in these sports could also be a partial corrective to the failure of predominantly white institutions to properly serve their black male students, a disproportionate number of whom make up the nation’s elite college football and basketball teams and who do not graduate. (Statistics show that at my alma mater, African American men make up 56 percent of the football and basketball players but have a graduation rate of 43 percent, 26 points behind all athletes and 47 points behind the general student body.)
If we allow athletes to complete their degrees in something more than 4 to 5 years, we aren’t making school "easier" for them. Returning to school without the commitments of sport would allow former players to hold internships, join academic clubs, participate in study abroad and experience all the other educational opportunities they couldn’t enjoy as athletes. And it’s likely that they would take more challenging courses leading to more meaningful degrees.
Lifetime scholarships would be an acknowledgement of the talent, hard work and sophisticated skill it takes to compete at the highest level in college sports. It would mean admitting that many athletes aspire to turn pro and want to go all in to see how far they can make it. Let’s embrace that, and stop pretending athletics is some sort of pastime. And then let’s welcome players back to school to complete their degrees.
Victoria Jackson is a sports historian at Arizona State University. She is a former NCAA champion runner and retired professional track and field athlete. She wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.