Column by Ken Cohen
There is a lot wrong with college athletics mainly that it has become way too important in the grand scheme of what a university or college is supposed to be doing educating young adults. Listen to what a University of Connecticut women’s basketball player said in an interview last week:
“I didn’t stay here for five years to get a graduate degree. I stayed to win a national championship.”
There you have it as clear as can be. This is no revelation by any means. We’ve known for decades that many college athletes are not on campus to pursue academic achievement. They are recruited and given full scholarships to help teams win. They are not after degrees, but banners. They are not pursuing careers, but contracts. They are not college students, but developmental athletes.
It’s sad that television and enormous amounts of money have corrupted secondary education to this point. College is supposed to be about learning, enrichment and expansion. A four-year transformation that converts naïve and sheltered 18-year-olds into mature, wordly and independent adults.
Yes, playing on a sports team helps individuals grow in positive ways as well. But it should be a supplement to the true foundation of attending college, which is to receive an education in preparation for the future. To hear a senior who will actually graduate say her only reason to staying in school was to win a national championship is sad. A college education holds no value to these athletes, yet that scholarship money would go a long way in helping someone who actually wants to get a degree.
It’s estimated that more than $1 billion is given out in athletic scholarships every year. While graduation rates among scholarship recipients has increased to 80 percent, that still means 20 percent of the money handed out or $200 million could go to more dedicated students.
Some of that 20 percent is comprised of underclassmen who turn professional and start earning millions of dollars. I think the NCAA should require any scholarship athlete who leaves early, does not graduate and signs a contract to play professional sports to repay the school the balance of the scholarship money.
Again, why should deserving students and I emphasize students be deprived an opportunity to attend college and earn a degree because there’s no money available? There would be if the scholarship wasn’t wasted on an athlete who had no academic interest whatsoever. We should also remember what the NCAA reminds us with one of its great public service ads that 99 percent of all college scholarship recipients do not go on to play professionally.
While the NCAA has improved graduation rates of its scholarship athletes and is now demanding more of them academically, there is still a long way to go. The culture is still sports first and at all costs. When was the last time you heard a touted high school recruit say he or she is choosing a college because it offers an excellent academic opportunity? It certainly wasn’t on the mind of the UConn basketball player.
Ken Cohen brings 30 years of publishing experience, many covering sports and working for sports companies, His column, “Further Review” will appear every Friday.