College athletics are intended to foster young peoples’ development, but the supposed commitment to academics and personal growth has created a system where student-athletes often face an uphill battle. Conversations about the role of sports on college campuses have spun out of control; high-profile scandals and a few celebrity athletes drive perceptions of what college sports actually are while the day-to-day obstacles that the vast majority of student-athletes face rarely factor into the discussion. In this 3-part series, we examine what college sports really mean for the hundreds of thousands of student-athletes who interact with this flawed system and whose daily struggles and life-altering decisions go unnoticed. Click to read Part 2 and Part 3.
Part 1: The NCAA’s unintended consequences
Last week, Sports Illustrated opened its damning, 5-part series chronicling Oklahoma State’s alleged behavior during its ascension to football relevance with a story about players receiving cash from athletic boosters. The 10-month investigation ultimately tackled many powerful issues—SI outlined how Oklahoma State essentially threw players that no longer performed back on the street and completely neglected their student-athletes’ intellectual development—but the age-old but inconsequential scandal of amateur players getting paid was, apparently, important enough to open the series.
For the few players who receive money, that issue is important. But for the vast majority of college athletes, who are not playing the highest-profile sports at the highest-profile schools, star football players getting cash bonuses is irrelevant compared to the issues they face as college athletes.
Around the country, student-athletes are going to school and dealing with a variety of obstacles in a complicated and highly-incentivized system, but conversations about the morality of college sports are driven by a tiny, yet highly-visible segment of the student-athlete population.
Most student-athletes, superstar and non-superstar alike, are in school to get an education and to play their sport. But, unfortunately, the current system is often not conducive to personal development, an issue that impacts all student-athletes.
Athletic programs claim to put educating and preparing young people before all else and the NCAA reports real statistical improvements in recent years since sharpening its focus on academics, but their changes have had unintended consequences. Rather than prompting schools to take a genuine interest in the wellbeing of their student-athletes, the NCAA has created an environment in which universities are more interested in statistics and eligibility requirements than student-athletes as individuals with unique educational needs.
As Fath Carter, who played at Oklahoma State from 2000 to 2003, said in Sports Illustrated, "The goal was not to educate but to get them the passing grades they needed to keep playing.”
Winning is everything in our sports-obsessed society. It means more donations, more highlights on SportsCenter, more applications coming in and the chance to join a better conference—which can impact an entire state’s economy. Winning means job security for coaches and athletic department officials and it helps schools become more prominent in the public consciousness, something that professors, students and athletes all care about. The desire to win is so powerful in the world of sports that universities will do and have done almost anything in order to become a winner.
Southern Methodist University was one such high-profile athletic program that wanted to win at all costs and was willing to disregard traditional norms and NCAA rules to do so. As a result, the NCAA brought the hammer down and gave SMU’s football team the “death penalty”, canceling its 1987 schedule after determining that they had paid players.
Then in 1990, led by former basketball star Bill Bradley, Congress passed the “Student Right-to-Know Act” in attempt to clean up college sports. The law mandated that universities make graduation rates public and required that universities disclose that information to coaches, parents and prospective student-athletes.
This new window into the academic side of college sports opened the NCAA and universities up to more pressure when it became clear that graduation rates were too low. Now that they had to report the numbers, schools began working harder to improve them.