As a lifelong UofL Cardinals fan and someone who loves college sports, I know this may sound shocking: I propose removing the word athlete from the term student-athlete. The time has long passed to divorce organized athletics from the institutions of higher learning, which serve as host subjects for a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. Students should play intramural sports, and young men and women interested in a career in sports should not do it in college but pursue that path in an open and honest way by attending an academy of sports. And hey — if it doesn’t work out for them, they can always go to college.
Let me explain.
I am sure you have heard the joke: Someone goes to the doctor’s office and says, “Hey doc, it hurts when I do this …” and the doctor replies, “Well, stop doing that.” Everyone knows the NCAA is a corrupt monopoly that profits off of the entertainment provided by 18-to-20-year-olds. We know the system is flawed or completely broken. So what would any reasonable doctor tell us? “Well, stop doing that.”
New York Times columnist and author Joe Nocera was a guest at the most recent Kentucky Author Forum for the book he coauthored, “Indentured: The Epic Scandal of the NCAA.” Throughout the book he recounts several of the NCAA’s greatest crimes against young men and women who went, or wanted to go, to college to play intercollegiate athletics. They became victims of one organization’s rise and claim to unilateral, authoritarian rule over all intercollegiate athletics. For decades, the organization was a vortex of power, resulting in the only institution in America exempt from antitrust laws and systematically working to suppress its workers’ wages and rights.
So, what would our doctor tell us? “Well, stop doing that.”
Ultimately there is one problem: American society is lying to itself about the virtues of its favorite form of entertainment. It is like a Disney movie depicting true love as something that all little, perfect princesses should hope to find by their 16th birthday: From the moment we first pick up a ball, we begin the brainwashing by extolling the virtuous purity of sports in America. And what could be more pure than the competition among amateurs? Men and women who play only because they love the game, like we do. How about, competition among student-athletes? Men and women, playing the games we all love, and using their love for sport to put themselves through school, and using sport as a ladder to social mobility and the American dream.
But like a Disney movie, we know that story is just a fairytale.
The truth is that there is no reasonable, purposeful relationship between education and athletics. Sure there is personal and social value to organized sports, but education and athletics are two incongruent institutions, one a circle and the other a square, and society pretends to like the fairytale world in which they work together.
How about a new system where we are honest with ourselves and, more important, honest with our kids — the workers — who produce this entertainment product? In an honest world, top junior athletes would be able to pursue a career in football, basketball, baseball or even golf, without having to pretend to be a student. If a kid grows up wanting a career in basketball, let him or her go play and get paid, just like they would if they were playing for a farm team.
All I am proposing is that we drop the facade. The NCAA could still be the organizing body of all these sports and their farm-team academies, just as the NFL, NBA, MLB and PGA are all organizing bodies. The NCAA really would not even have to drop the school affiliation: I could still cheer for my Louisville Cardinals, and Big Blue Nation could still cheer for their UK Cats. Let’s just drop the requirements that a student must go through the empty motions of going to class to stay eligible for a year or two. Better yet, offer an industry-specific education like the Professional Golf Management programs. Create an environment in which an athlete’s education supports a career that suits the his or her talents and interests. Why would an athletic vocation be treated differently than a technical vocation?
We don’t have to sacrifice the sports we love to stop lying to ourselves about the virtues of amateur athletics. But we can’t complain to the doctor that it hurts when we feel wronged by the iron fist of the NCAA. All the good doctor would say is: “Well, stop doing that.”