When now-former Wisconsin Badgers football coach Gary Andersen unexpectedly caught the last train for the West Coast, one of the reasons suggested by pundits was that the UW has tougher academic standards for its players than a lot of other schools. This wasn't denied by Andersen, who was reportedly unhappy that he couldn't recruit a promising lineman from Sun Prairie because the kid didn't have the grades for admission at the university.
Most of the sports commentary and public commentary I saw was supportive of the standards and critical of Andersen. So was I initially -- until I thought about it.
The student-athlete concept has its place. And that place is at smaller schools and in non-revenue athletics like track and swimming. But for big-time, big-money sports, mostly NCAA Division I football and basketball, and maybe hockey, it just doesn't apply anymore, if it ever did.
For football and basketball at the 65 or so biggest schools, there are huge television contracts, ticket sales and merchandise deals. With that comes what is now one of the most exploited workforces in America. The coaches, front office types and TV executives are making millions, while the guys who actually produce on the field -- who risk sometimes permanent injury and who have only a very long shot at ever making it to the pros -- can’t be compensated beyond a scholarship and some incidental things like a food allowance.
Under pressure from players, those rules are starting to loosen just a little. This year, a court ruled that football players in big programs were essentially university employees and not primarily students, and so they were allowed to unionize. That long overdue recognition of simple reality should put to bed the consciously misleading term "student-athlete" as it applies to big-time college sports. That term was created by NCAA officials back in the 1950s precisely to head off the kind of litigation that the association is facing and losing now.
This train left the station a long time ago, and it's not coming back. We'll never return to the days when athletes in big-time sports really were students. In fact, you can make a case that this is nothing new. In fact, George Gipp (the "Gipper") was at best an occasional student at Notre Dame. He made money as a pool shark and poker player, and lived in a swanky hotel in downtown South Bend. He also drank a lot and he bet on college football games -- although, to his credit, never against Notre Dame as far as anyone knows. Still, that's not exactly the image the NCAA is trying to sell -- and sell and sell and sell.
So, it seems to me the honest thing to do, and the approach that treats the athletes most fairly, is to pay them like the employees that they are. Hire them, pay them a decent wage, give them long-term health care, and have no expectation that they will be students at all. Negotiate with their union, or whatever one might look like in Wisconsin under Act 10. And if those athletes want to take some classes and maybe even get a degree while they're here, nothing is stopping them as long as they can make the grade. But let's do away with the dishonest pretense of the "student-athlete" in big-money college sports.