Wednesday, July 09, 2008

College Sports Corruption?

Jason Whitlock, of the Kansas City Star newspaper is one of the few sports journalists for whom I hold respect. Most so-called sports reporters are on the level of ESPN's appalling Stephen A. Smith- loud, obnoxious and with little actual understanding of that which they are bound to report on. Whitlock, however, is both independent and doesn't play the race card without reason. He is therefore always worth reading, whether one agrees with him or not. As an aside, he was one of the few sports journalists not to get caught up on the wrong side of the infamous Duke Rape Hoax.

He has a column today on the NCAA and college basketball and football student-athletes. The column was occasioned by a University of Arizona basketball recruit, one Brandon Jennings, choosing to play overseas as opposed to attempt to meet the UNiversity of Arizona's admission requirements. Whitlock argues that this should be an opportunity for the NCAA to overhaul it's rules and admit that many of these athletes are not students and never will be. He writes,
1. Acknowledge that college basketball and football players are entertainer-athletes, not student-athletes. Bring them on campus, pay them, free them of academic responsibility and let them entertain students, alums, boosters and fans while auditioning for a pro career.

2. Form an alliance with the NFL and NBA and invest in education/athletic academies for talented young basketball and football players (of all colors) beginning in eighth and ninth grade.

The NCAA pays its basketball and football players with a currency (education) many of them aren't prepared to spend or value. That has to change, and it's incumbent on the NCAA to be a big part of the change.

I had a discussion about this very point with a colleague who like me is a huge college sports fan. As I see it, there are two separate issues here- first is that not everyone is entitled or even needs a college education. If an athlete cannot meet the entrance standards for an educational institute, then he or she should definitely have the option of playing professionally, whether it be in Europe or in some minor league in the United States. Baseball players do precisely that all the time.

The second issue is the fact that many of these athletes are not prepared for the rigors of a college education. This is a failing of the schools that supposedly prepared them- the primary and secondary school systems, and that needs to be corrected as well. However, I have to disagree with Mr. Whitlock as far as having the NBA and the NFL create academies. They are in the business of presenting a professional product, not educating kids. However, if the universities went back to their core mission, then both the NFL and the NBA should in fact focus on minor leagues, as baseball has. The NBA does have the NBDL, and the NFL should create something similar for those who aren't ready for the prime-time.

As I see it, the universities should go back to the basics- being educators, not minor leagues for the professionals. If an athlete cannot meet the academic standards, then he or she should not gain admission. Period. Student-athletes should be precisely that- students first and athletes second. Athletes who cannot gain admission should be prepared to go overseas or play in the minor leagues to hone their skills. But the money involved in college basketball and football is so immense that schools seem to have forgotten their own basic mission while wallowing in the cash generated by these sports.

It is time to re-focus. Schools should be schools, not minor leagues for the NBA or NFL. While football contains a large number of athletes for whom it is not an end-all, basketball is much more problematic, especially as it has been taken over by the hip-hop generation that does not appeal as much to mainstream fans, and by definition, many of these guys are not scholars.

However, Mr. Whitlock is absolutely correct on at least one point- the current system is a disgrace and needs overhaul. The coaches, the administrators and above all the athletes are being forced to live a lie in most cases and it is time to clean up the system once and for all.

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