The Confidential

The ACC Sports Blog

NCAA: Alternatives for Student-Athletes

Note: this article is a repost of an April 7, 2014, article… with a better title.  Also, please see this other article about a similar topic–the student-athlete major.

As is often the case, the devil is in the details.  As a lawyer, it is notable that most commentary on legal issues in public is done by persons without the legal savvy to fully understand it.  Folks remember that woman who received the huge verdict from McDonald’s for burning herself with hot coffee.  Few realize the true facts of the case make even this grizzled civil defense attorney think that the case had some merit worthy of an atypical judgment/settlement.  The long and short of it is that people would be well advised to know the actual facts (to the extent possible) and read the actual rulings by judges with a legal eye before criticizing same.  Such may be the case with the recent Northwestern-union issue, where the idea of student-athletes as employees seems far-fetched… until you analyze the facts, the legal standard for what an “employee” is, and the ruling itself.

Indeed, it was disappointing to read that the academically-successful Northwestern student-athletes may have been discouraged from taking the courses that they wanted to take.  At the other extreme, however, are the discussions about how some student-athletes have academic skills that are so far below those of their college peers.  The purported North Carolina essay that is making the rounds on the Internet is one example of that story.  The Confidential believes that it may be appropriate to consider an alternative track for the at-risk student-athlete with subpar academic skills.

Previously, the Confidential discussed the merit of a “professional athlete major.”  But what about the student-athletes entering school with academic skills that do not lend themselves to a meaningful college education experience?  The Confidential believes that the best result would be for the NCAA to allow Division 1 schools to provide an alternative program that would (a) first, get the students up to par academically; and (b) second, then allow those students a meaningful opportunity to obtain and validly earn that degree.

Once upon a time, freshmen with subpar academic profiles were deemed ineligible as freshmen via Proposition 48.  Paradoxically, the NCAA punished those kids by only allowing them to have three years of eligibility.  Utterly absurd.  When an 18-year old graduates from high school with anything less than high school merit, the shame goes to the educators along the way–not the kid.  While some kids deserve their fair share of blame for allowing themselves not to learn, not every minor makes the best decisions in life.  The anomaly is when minors make adult-like decisions.

The Confidential posits that the real problem (as in the extremes of the Northwestern case and the North Carolina situation) is the folly of the NCAA living in a fantasy world.  Indeed, the concept of student-athlete is a fantasy itself.  The NCAA’s solution is to live the lie of not paying students because they get an education and because amateurism is deemed to matter for some unexplained reason.  The NCAA also allows smart kids to be discouraged from real academic pursuits, while also allowing academically disadvantaged kids to be swept along in the same system that allowed them to get to college with subpar academic skills.  As long as the money is flowing and nobody is getting too much negative press, so be it for the NCAA.

The Confidential thinks this is morally improper given the billions generated by the NCAA and poses an alternative solution:

  • Create an NCAA-administered test to determine the academic abilities of incoming student-athletes in the revenue-generating programs.  Allow a waiver for incoming students with certain criteria demonstrating clear academic success, such as SAT or ACT scores.
  • Any student deemed to have subpar academics, such as a below high-school level reading, writing, and mathematic abilities, is allowed to be placed in an at-risk student track (or whatever, better name could be chosen).
  • The at-risk students would be on a 7-year plan: (a) the student would be ineligible for play in year 1, with a satisfactory performance required before eligibility to play; (b) if necessary, a student-athlete could spend a second year taking course-work designed to bridge the gap between subpar performance and the rigors of college academia, although eligibility during that second year for athletics would be allowed; (c) whether one year or two years were invested in the process, the college would be required to provide FIVE more academic-scholarship years to complete the college work required for a degree; and (d) the student would be given a maximum of four years of athletic eligibility no matter what.
  • One difference is that, unlike the old Proposition 48, the first year would not be lost from a competition standpoint.  Instead, the student would get it on the back end, after the academics are up to par.

Looking forward, there would need to be rules regarding the limits, to prevent schools from stockpiling 10 at-risk kids per year in the hopes that a few would make it to eligible sophomores.  And so on.

The goal would be to allow the college experience to be productive for student athletes.  If they are already able to meaningfully participate in the college academic process, so be it.  But if the incoming student-athletes need work to get up to college-level, then the colleges should provide it while allowing these same student-athletes to generate revenue for the schools.

Not all student-athletes would take full advantage of this opportunity.  Some might leave before graduating to pursue a professional sports career.  Others might “drop out,” as is evident within the general student population.  And seven years is a long time to complete a degree.  But the Confidential believes that it would be better for some percentage of student-athletes to take proper advantage of THIS program than to end up with an empty diploma.  The purpose of education may include that diploma, but it is also the education that comes with it.  Otherwise, it might as well be an honorary degree.

In sum, a program like this would allow the coaches to tell all prospective student-athletes, as well as their parents/guardians, that not only will the student-athlete end up with the diploma, but they will also receive the actual skills that are represented by that diploma.  The NCAA can and probably will stick with its fantasy.  The Confidential has its own fantasy as to how the NCAA could operate if it truly cared about the student-athletes it profits from.

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