Defending the Student Athlete

I’m a big fan of college sports. And no, ever since my brother played football for Northwestern University, I haven’t been much of an Ohio State fan. While I casually pull for many different schools and teams, as my friends will tell you, my two favorite are my alma matter, the University of Dayton, and whoever is playing Notre Dame. However, given the recent events at the University of South Carolina, I may just have to add one more team to my list of favorites.


But before you get ahead of yourself, I’m not talking about their football, basketball or even water polo team; I’m referring to the group of professors that make up the admissions team. The turning point for this decision came when two of head football coach Steve Spurrier’s recruits were denied admissions to the school despite meeting the NCAA’s minimum requirements.


Coach Spurrier was obviously upset, even threatening to leave the school when his contract is up. However, the admissions team stood firm holding to their elevated standards as well as the schools prescribed criteria. This battle is far from over, but I’ve got to say that I think there is so much more at stake here than just the future of two high school seniors.


Over the years, the words “student athlete” have steadily climbed the ranks of the top contradictory terms, currently sitting somewhere between “military intelligence” and “Congressional Ethics Committee.” For me personally, this issue started with an experience I had many years ago. At my college graduation ceremony all students were seated in specific sections, separated by degree, major and minor and lined up in alphabetical order by last name. Shortly after the processional, I looked to my right and low and behold, just a few seats down sat one of the members of our Division I basketball team.


My problem with this was a simple one. Despite graduating with a very specific degree, which required long hours spent inside many different “hands-on” classrooms and technical labs, regardless of the fact that classes for this degree path had only a few participants and were only offered in specific semesters, I had never once, over the course of my four year education, so much as even seen this student on campus. Yet here sat a man who held a degree that tells the outside world that he completed the very same tasks as the rest of our class.


The point isn’t that the player couldn’t have completed the course work on his own, using specially-established tutors and instructors. The point is, that at that moment it became painfully clear to me that even at the University of Dayton, there are athletes and there are students and each has their own completely separate school.


Now, you can call me naive if you want, but until that moment I was still under the impression that colleges and universities everywhere still maintained the idealistic restrictions of maintaining academics above athletics. Truth be told, my faith began to waiver in the years leading up to college as I watched my brothers’ football teams continue to struggle in the Big-10, arguably due in part to their dramatically higher academic standards. Face it, how often do the other Division I schools lose players because they choose early graduation rather than play out their final year of scholarship eligibility?


I realize that colleges and universities make millions, if not billions of dollars through these sports programs. I realize that athletics can often open up opportunities for individuals who might not get into college on their academic background. However, I believe that schools have a responsibility to all those that are admitted. Like it or not, the value of a diploma is intrinsically tied to the public reputation of the school. And the first line of defense for that reputation lies entirely in the hands of the admissions team. Granting special allowances to admit individual athletes may bring the school glory on the field, but pushing through unqualified applicants damages the honor and respect fought for by every other student who played by the rules, worked hard and paid their dues.


Essentially, by bending the rules for these athletes, not only do you teach them that they are above the rules, but that the university places more value on their productivity on the field than their development in the classroom.


Spurrier can complain all he wants, but this is a moment where the ethics of the entire educational process was being challenged, and I’m glad to see the professors stand firm. Further, I’m disappointed in any coach that would choose to criticize rather than herald this event as an example of the hard work and level of excellence that is required of athletes who wish to play on his team. After all, you can’t stress the importance of hard work on the field if you discount the need for hard work off of it.


In the weeks to come there will, no doubt, be further discussion of the problems facing the student athlete. In my opinion, if the NCAA wants to solve this issue once and for all, the answer is very simple: eliminate recruiting all together. A coach shouldn’t be making promises as to the educational future of a student. And admission shouldn’t depend on athletic ability any more than it should be determined by ethnic heritage.


If you want to return dignity and honor to the term “Student Athlete” then find athletes among your students, not students among your athletes.

Read More on Perspective
Volume 3, Issue 17, Posted 3:22 PM, 08.10.2007