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 1 and Part 3.
Part 2: Falling through the cracks
The 1993 film Rudy is a heart-warming story about a kid who dreams of putting on the famous Notre Dame gold helmet. At the end of the movie, before the clock expires in the final game of the season, Coach Devine finally puts tiny Rudy Ruettiger into the game to the delight of his teammates and the 80,000 fans in attendance. In the final scene, his glorious journey culminates as his teammates carry him off the field on their shoulders.
That’s the story: He overcomes adversity, achieves his dream, and leaves a hero. For many student-athletes in the real world, what happens after the last play of the last game is the real struggle.
Randy Kinder knows what it’s like to wear that iconic helmet and have 80,000 people cheering for him. From 1993 to 1996, he played running back under Lou Holtz and recorded 19 touchdowns and almost 2,400 yards from scrimmage.
For Kinder, scoring touchdowns in South Bend and being part of such a storied program was the thrill of a lifetime but his dedication to his sport came with a cost. He ultimately left South Bend with a degree but very few real-world skills and no professional direction.
In Part 1, we examined how the motivation for schools to win, combined with the academic guidelines that the NCAA instituted to combat perceptions that it didn’t care about academics have created an environment in which schools care more about arbitrary metrics than the lives of student-athletes. The revelations in the pages of Sports Illustrated about Oklahoma State’s transgressions during its rise to prominence—which include clustering poor academic performers into easy classes and allowing players to pass without doing any work—illustrate how, with the system that is in place, a school has an incentive to commit fraud if necessary in order to ensure that bottom tier of student-athletes can stay eligible.
But that same perverse incentive structure exists at established, academically-oriented schools as well. The prioritization of eligibility and winning over education makes it difficult for even student-athletes that want to get an education to take advantage of the resources that universities offer.
Kinder was an intelligent young man and a decent student, but when he arrived in South Bend 20 years ago, he got lost in the world of big-time college sports.
“You just get so distracted,” the former football star remembered. “And by the time you need to really focus in (on your career) when you’re a senior or the last part of junior year, then you’re thinking, ‘can I get to the NFL?’ and that certainly makes it harder to focus on what I’m doing after football.”
Kinder ultimately turned his lifelong dream into a reality by making it to the NFL. He’ll never forget the feeling of walking into the Green Bay Packers locker room, but, like so many players that fight for roster spots, his football career was short-lived. He gave it a shot, got a taste of NFL action with a few different teams, and was out of the league by his 23rd birthday.