A G.I. Bill for College Athletes?

published March 18, 2010

For the sports fan with avid interest and a deficit-prone attention span, is there anything better than the first two days of the NCAAs?  Thirty-two games, a noon-to-midnight orgy of action, and you don’t even have to work the clicker – CBS does the surfing for you.  Sure, they’ll stick too long with a big-name blowout and that theme music sounds like nails on a blackboard by the second round, but at least Billy Packer’s gone and there’s March Madness on Demand streaming live video of every game if you get really itchy.

I love the tournament.  And I think it’s really cute that they put the names of colleges on the uniforms, just like the Little League team sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds in The Bad News Bears.

The myth of the student-athlete at elite sports institutions is one of our most enduring national hypocrisies.  He or she may well have existed at one time, back when teams were made up of people who just happened to be attending the school.  That was long before college sports became a business with millions riding on the difference between winning and losing, and the pursuit of athletic excellence became a full-time occupation.  It’s not impossible to get a good education while also putting in one’s time in the weight room, in meetings, in film study, in practices, and in travel to and playing in and physically recovering from the games themselves – but it’s damned difficult, and an awful lot to ask of the young.

Even though we know there’s no real connection between revenue sports and education, college sports seem to fill some need.  The schools and conferences are successful brand names; fans who didn’t attend them identify with them, and the schools evidently believe that the teams help cement their relationship with the alumni.

We understand that the football and basketball players at big-time programs are not “normal students.”  Graduation rates aren’t even the issue; with enough hand-holding, mandatory study halls, cooperative professors, and carefully chosen courses, a school can fluff up its numbers without providing a real education.

What’s most galling is the whole bait and switch: Work hard, develop your game, get a scholarship to college – but when you get there we’ll fill up your time and make it tough for you to get the education we told you was so important.

There is a way around this dilemma.  It was first proposed in a book called The Hundred Yard Lie by Rick Telander in 1989.  (I don’t think he’ll mind my citing it, since I was the editor of that book, and I suggested this idea to him.)  For athletes in the revenue-producing sports that put the most demands on their time – basketball and football, primarily – the university agrees to give them, for each year they play the sport, one year of a free education, to be taken whenever the athletes sees fit.  If he wants to study while playing, that’s fine.  If he wants a shot at a pro career, doesn’t make it, and then decides to get an education two years later, or ten, or twenty, that’s fine too – he served the school on the field or court, and now it’s time for the school to pay him back.

I thought of it as a sports equivalent of the programs that pay for medical school for doctors who agree to spend time working in underserved areas.  A better comparison for roughly the same idea suggested by University of Kentucky professor Michael Kennedy was cited in the New York Times’s annual “Year in Ideas” issue in 2003, where Stephen J. Dubner called it “a G.I. Bill for college athletes.”

No more hand-holding, no more sweating out eligibility, no more hypocrisy.  Players will get something of real value for their time whenever they’re ready to use it.  The school can’t completely ignore a potential player’s academic liabilities, because some day he’ll be taking up real space on the campus, not just in isolation at the athletic dorms and complexes.

The NCAA spends a lot of time telling us about the fine student-athletes who take part in college sports and then “turn pro in something else.”  The delayed-education proposal would extend that opportunity to those who are playing in the games we’re watching.

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