Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

A Counter-Intuitive Solution To Scandal In College Sports

Posted on September 04, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor are just among the latest to bring scandal to college athletics.

As college football scandals proliferate and deepen, this sports fan is beginning to feel as if we’re hitting bottom. It’s time to separate college athletics from professional sports.

My solution is simple. College athletics should be college athletics. No player should represent a school in any sport, if that player would not have been academically eligible to attend the school for which s/he plays.

Give athletic scholarships to all those who qualify both academically and athletically, and give them four year scholarships contingent on maintaining academic eligibility.

According to my proposal, any athlete wishing to play for a particular school would have to go through the regular admission process first. Only after being accepted on academic criteria, would an athlete then be eligible to compete for an athletic scholarship.

Such a policy would actually increase opportunities for athletes who are truly college material to play at the intercollegiate level, and to obtain scholarships to attend the best schools at which they can qualify. It would also eliminate the potential for abuse, since recruiting would be limited to athletes who are academically eligible, and since the athletic department would not have any influence over the admission process.

It is true that under this system the schools with the best athletic programs might be the schools with the lowest academic standards, but so be it.

It is more likely, however that most athletes who are borderline eligible academically at best, as well as others who might be academically eligible but just want to go straight from high school to professional sports, would choose to focus exclusively on their athletic careers deferring or bypassing higher education if there were an adequate farm system in football and basketball as there is in baseball and hockey.

While some impact players do enter MLB and the NHL from college, a majority come straight up through the farm system. This does not diminish the quality of play in those sports on the college level but it does offer an alternative for the prodigies and those not academically oriented to go directly into a career track in sports rather than maintain the guise of scholarship while simply biding their time until they can play in the pros.

It would also solve the problem of player development, especially in football. The issue of number one draft picks often not being ready to start in the NFL, and sometimes being hurried into roles they are not ready for, would be moot. As in baseball or hockey, talent could be nurtured and developed on a graduated minor league system so that when they are called up, they are truly ready to play. Wouldn’t it be better for your backup quarterback to be playing each week in a high quality farm system than to be sitting on the bench for years waiting for the opportunity to shine?

Basketball has the NBADL but would have to expand it considerably under this system, but again, both the players and the major league teams who own them would benefit from such a system, and at the same time, college basketball would continue to thrive, as would football.

The college athletes would be in college for the primary purpose of getting a degree, and would be playing sports as a secondary or co-equal priority to the pursuit of education. Thus those in college who are good enough to play at a high level in the pros will have the full four years to develop before entering the pro circuit, and their schools will benefit from having players for all four years again.

There will be many athletes who might choose a college education first but who for whatever reason need more than just a full scholarship to survive. Those athletes could enter the farm system, earn a living wage, and get their education on the off-season, or after their careers are over.

The financial option would be there for anyone good enough to play in the majors, so there would be no need to pay student athletes under the table to attract them or keep them at a certain school.

The alternative is to formalize college athletics as a farm system for the pros and end the pretense of amateurism that remains. It is obvious college sports as they are currently operated are unable to police themselves and maintain their own policies and standards, so it is either my proposal or simply giving up and admitting that college sports, on the Division I level at least, are now also professional.

But that would hurt the colleges and would not really help the athletes or the professional leagues. Colleges are colleges, not sports franchises. The beauty of college sports is in the ideal of the true student athlete. Colleges are not ideally suited to run professional sports leagues. If they attempted to do so in any explicit way, the current disproportionality of sports to academics would be exacerbated and the students themselves would lose any real connection to the mercenaries playing for their school.

By returning to a pure system of student athletes, our colleges and universities would be able to scale back the discrepancies and disparity between what is invested in athletics versus academics and education would benefit, as would all students. And ironically, it would also save college sports.

John Wingspread Howell is a novelist, writer (about sports and life) and entrepreneur originally from, and now back home again in Buffalo, New York.

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