So, there is currently another scandal in college basketball consisting of multiple indictments for multiple coaches at multiple universities for multiple crimes. The NCAA has once again been shown to be about as effective an organization as the French Army.
Semi-professional athletics is a tremendous problem for campuses and it desperately needs to be changed—but not because of these recurring recruiting scandals. People who think that is the biggest problem are missing the point.
I’m not going to discuss in detail the cost of these programs—either you understand there is no Santa Claus, or you will never believe the truth. An amazing number of people believe that these programs make money, or that the “profits” from football and basketball “pay for" the other sports. Nonsense. There are fewer than a dozen universities across the nation where the athletic departments break even.
If you doubt this, do a little math. How many seats are in your local football stadium? What’s the average ticket cost? How many home games are there? Then, calculate the maximum income. At Enema U, my alma mater, the football program would lose money even if every seat held three people. Then, for fun, check and see who is the highest paid state employee where you live. In thirty-nine out of fifty states, it is either a football or a basketball coach. Remember that the next time you visit a state health care facility—your state did not hire the best doctor it could afford, but it got the best football or basketball coach your tax dollars could buy.
The recent indictments once again prove that the universities are very good at hiding the true costs of their athletic programs, but even the data they do release shows that athletic departments lose millions per year.
Beyond the financial costs of college sports, think about the way they abuse the "student-athletes" who participate in the programs. If you recruit minority inner-city children to come to a university strictly for your entertainment—students who are otherwise neither prepared nor qualified to attend a university—then you toss them away when they either flunk out or become too injured to play, you are engaging in a new and particularly cruel form of slavery, which is! at best, immoral.
And colleges frequently recruit athletes who have absolutely no chance of completing a university-level education. I have had "student-athletes" in my classroom who could not read. I’m not talking about reading at grade level, I’m talking about students who could not read a Dr. Seuss book. I have had "student-athletes" who could not even speak English and couldn’t read in their native languages. I had a basketball student who flunked a beginning language course in his native language because he could not complete the written assignments.
I can almost hear the objections. “Wait, but doesn’t that student benefit from being exposed to education?”
Ignoring the negative effect this student has on the rest of a class, education is not a disease that you catch after being exposed to it—it is something you can only achieve after hard work. Nor are universities set up to be elementary schools. The benefit of college for such an unprepared athlete is negligible.
Imagine finding the brightest possible young student from among the natives of New Guinea or the Amazon jungle. Take a young man with a genius-level IQ but no formal education and then drop him in the middle of the most scientifically advanced place imaginable—the control room of a nuclear power plant or the research centers at NASA. After four years, what do you think the student will have learned? He may have learned that a nuclear trefoil means danger and he will certainly have learned where the cafeteria is located, but no matter how long he walks the halls, he will not become an engineer—he lacks the necessary educational foundation and is not in a place where he can acquire it.
College athletics is the antithesis of the message our education system tries desperately to give students. From the first years in school, we tell students that if they study and work hard, their education will reward them in later life. Then, we show them exactly the opposite is true. Year after year, it is the student athlete, not the scholar, who is held up at school functions as the school hero. Chances are better than even that either his middle school or high school will have a former coach as the principal.
Years ago, I remember visiting my son’s high school. In the entrance lobby were larger than life photos of students under a banner, “Our Honored Students.” The photos were all of student athletes. When I asked the principal—a former football coach—where the photo of the student with the highest SAT score was located, he told me the photos were there to build school spirit, which evidently had nothing to do with academic excellence.
University students get the same contradictory message. Despite being NCAA violations, student athletes usually have special dorm rooms and eat in private cafeterias with special food (and special condiments). They have special “tutors”, who do much of their assignments (especially if the athletes are enrolled in online courses). Athletes who flunk out of course miraculously raise their grade point averages with intensive short duration online coursework. I asked one student athlete about such a course he had taken over the Christmas break, and he could not remember the subject of the course he had supposedly completed two weeks earlier.
The rest of the students see this and know exactly what is going on: the "student athletes" are more highly valued than regular students. Obviously, the message this sends to students is nowhere near the supposed mission statement of the university.
Years ago, while doing research in Tegucigalpa, I was surprised to run across several former student athletes from Enema U. In fact, there were over a dozen former basketball players living in a large communal dormitory.
“What are you guys doing in Honduras?” I asked one of the students.
“Playing B-Ball” he answered.
It turned out that after they left the university—most of them without any degree despite four years of an all-expenses-paid education—they had not been picked up by any professional sports teams. Instead, they were playing semi-pro ball in Central America for $400 a month, plus room and board. (These particular ex-students were playing for the local Toyota dealership).
Isn’t it about time we start telling student athletes the truth about their college majors? Using data from the NCAA, less than 1% of high school basketball players go onto play college basketball at the NCAA level. Of those, only 1.1% go on to play pro ball for the NBA, where the average career is less than five years.
Universities should give us the real data, too. They should tell us where the student athletes of twenty years are today? After they left the university, how many found work in their majors? How many went on to have careers in sports? How many of them developed health problems related to their years in sports?
As taxpayers, we paid for this, so we deserve the answers. As human beings who have been promised a better future, the student-athletes surely deserve better, too.