JENKINS: Let's put the 'student' back in 'student-athlete'

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

In this final installment of my series on reforming college athletics, I’d like to focus on the athletes. The impending financial implosion isn’t their fault; they’re just the piece of foam board on which the entire house of cards is built. Any reforms must include them.

That’s not to say college athletes are being exploited, exactly. I believe a scholarship is a fair exchange for playing a sport most of them would play anyway. A few even avail themselves of the opportunity and get degrees.

However, as our priorities have drifted further and further afield, our sports-obsessed culture has taken advantage of those young people by putting them in situations where they have little chance to succeed academically. The fact that many of them have no interest in succeeding academically merely reinforces my point.

Perhaps the single most important reform, then, is to end the widespread practice of lowering admission standards for athletes. What makes us think that, at an institution where the average student — the AVERAGE student — has an SAT score of 1250 and a high school GPA of 3.5, someone with a 900 and a 2.3 can compete?

Either we’re doing those young people a disservice by tossing them head-first into the deep end, or we’re blatantly abandoning all pretense that they’re “student-athletes” and just using them to help us win on Saturday.

Another related suggestion is to abolish athletic scholarships and make all financial aid at our research universities merit- and need-based. High school athletes who qualify can get aid. Others will have to go elsewhere.

The notion that such a policy would dash anyone’s dreams of attending college is laughable. Federal financial aid programs ensure that anyone who really wants to go to college can — somewhere. There are even options for those who want to play a sport: smaller state universities with lower entrance requirements, two-year colleges with virtually no entrance requirements.

The real problem is that for years the NFL and the NBA have used our major colleges as de facto minor league systems, at no cost to them. The result is that most kids in major college programs think like pro athletes, not students — which could explain any number of ills, from abysmal graduation rates to assault charges.

I say our great academic institutions need to get out of the professional sports business. Let the NBA and the NFL follow Major League Baseball’s model and start their own minor leagues — which they will, once the colleges quit doing it for them.

Then the kids who want to go to school and play ball can go to school — and play ball. Others can go straight to the pros or to smaller, less academically competitive colleges.

Then, whether we walk into the stadium on Saturday or a classroom on Monday, we’ll know the kids are there because they want to be.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English and director of The Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.