How NCAA can help ‘students be students’ by improving education

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

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(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Dabo Swinney isn’t the only coach with hypocritical opinions about paying college athletes. Swinney is only the most sanctimonious and entitled coach arguing against allowing players to profit from their work, same as coaches. But I give Swinney credit for being one of the few who brings up education in this debate.

Swinney was wrong when he said paying players would devalue their education. The current college sports model devalues education by requiring athletes to spend so much time working, leaving less time for learning. Paying them a market salary would only compensate them for that labor.

However, if Swinney really is worried that education is getting lost in the shuffle, then I share that concern. I look forward to the inevitable death of the NCAA’s “amateur” model. In the meantime, schools should be required to meet their stated goal of ensuring athletes receive a quality education. They’ve failed do to that in many ways, especially with Black athletes.

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I’m all for reforms that lead to better educational outcomes for college athletes. That’s where I share common ground with some of those who argue against pay-for-play. It’s in that spirit that I reached out to Len Elmore.

Elmore was an All-American basketball player at Maryland, played 10 seasons in the NBA and later began careers as an attorney and sportscaster. Elmore is co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Elmore and the commission oppose pay-for-play for athletes. But the organization has been influential in supporting NCAA reforms that prioritize the “education, health, safety and success” of college athletes.

The Knight Commission long has been a proponent of basing the distribution of some NCAA revenue on the academic performance of sports teams. The NCAA adopted that model for Division I schools in 2016 and has committed to distributing $1.1 billion in “academic unit” revenue by 2032. Now the Knight Commission is proposing that schools be ineligible to receiver that money if they don’t close the racial gap in graduation rates.

The commission suggests that schools with a graduation-rate gap of greater than 25% between Black and white athletes should not qualify for revenues that are based on academic success. According to the commission, 79% of Division I schools met at least one of three criteria to qualify for academic performance revenue in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. If the commissions’ standard of less than 25% racial gap were applied, only 66 of schools would have qualified.

Elmore said tying NCAA revenue distribution to academic standards has helped increase the overall graduation of athletes, but the current standard doesn’t address the racial gap in graduation rates.

“We’ve got to shrink that gap,” Elmore said Friday. “Right now, essentially, the NCAA is sending millions of dollars to schools that failed to close a significant gap.”

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The commission’s proposal is supported by a coalition of faculty senates at NCAA Division I colleges and universities. The suggestion is that the racial graduation gap to receive revenue start at 25% and become smaller over time. As the NCAA increases the academic performance revenue distributed, schools will have more financial incentive to do better with graduating Black athletes.

I think the Knight Commission’s proposal is a good idea. Most of the athletes participating in sports that generate the most revenue, football and men’s basketball, are Black people. That they aren’t being paid market value for their work is a racial-justice issue. The same is true for their lagging educational attainment in comparison with white athletes.

“These are still college students, and students need still need to be students,” Elmore said. “That’s what is most important.”

Elmore said he believes in the idea of athletes as true students because he benefited from his education at Maryland. But he recognizes that the NCAA long ago strayed from its original intent of promoting education. Money warped that mission. The Knight Commission has proposed using the carrot of cash for college administrators to improved educational outcomes for athletes.

There are many other areas of potential educational reform for athletes. One obvious path is to reduce the number of hours athletes devote to their sport. Athletes report spending more than 40 hours per week on sports activities. NCAA rules limit such work to 20 hours during the season. But that doesn’t include time spent for traveling, getting treatment, compliance meetings, team promotional activities and other responsibilities.

In addition to excessive time demands on athletes, there’s an issue with schools “clustering” them into classes or majors that are perceived to be easy, or those that include professors who are friendly to athletic programs. The idea is that athletes have a better chance of remaining eligible and can dedicate more time to sports if their academic load is relatively lighter. It’s yet another way that education is devalued for athletes.

Elmore said that, in his opinion, schools should do more to ensure that classes that attract a disproportionate number of athletes meet minimal standards of academic rigor. He said schools also could set up mechanisms that allow athletes to lodge complaints about their education, including excessive time spent on sports, “without fear of retaliation.” Elmore envisions an independent board that would hear athletes’ concerns and “hold coaches accountable for bullying and threats.”

I believe players would gain the power to stand up to coaches if they were classified as employees and formed a union. That doesn’t necessarily mean education would fall to the wayside. If players were allowed to collectively bargain for their compensation, they could decide that enhanced educational benefits and incentives should be part of it. Schools also could tie salaries and bonuses to satisfactory academic progress as part of their labor agreement proposals.

Elmore counters that boosters and donors who are “just looking for quality sports teams” would pressure schools to drop the education requirements. Those athletes who aren’t interested in education also could sway peers, Elmore said. He advocates for the money spent on “bigger facilities” and “outrageous salaries” for coaches to be diverted to educational and other benefits for athletes, including guaranteed health care after they leave school.

Elmore notes that athletes today receive significantly more compensation and benefits than he did as a college athlete in the 1970s. Recent NCAA reforms include full cost of attendance scholarships for athletes. After the NCAA lost a unanimous decision at the Supreme Court last year, it voted to allow athletes the limited ability to profit from their name, image and likeness.

The Court also ruled that schools could give up to $5,980 per year in education-related benefits athletes. But ESPN in April surveyed 101 schools with programs playing at the FBS level and found that only 22 had plans to distribute academic awards to players. It’s another case of NCAA schools not putting money behind their purported educational mission while spending more and more on sports.

Elmore, who attended Harvard Law School after his NBA career, said he’s concerned that the attention on NIL has taken focus away from the issue of whether athletes receive a quality education.

“It really bothers me because I benefited from it,” Elmore said. “I got to go to college and, without (sports), I’m not sure I would have done that. I was fortunate to go on and play pro sports, but (college) prepared me for life after sports.”

Clemson’s Swinney is right when he says the commercialization of sports devalues education. He’s just wrong about why. The commercialization already has happened. That’s why Swinney has a $93 million contract. If coaches had their way, athletes would work even more hours.

A 2016 NCAA survey of Division I coaches found that most are in favor of lifting the 20-hour weekly cap on sports activities. That included 68% of men’s basketball coaches and 67% of FBS football coaches. If Swinney is worried that education has been devalued in college sports, he should blame coaches and administrators for chasing the money.

Kudos to Elmore’s Knight Commission for trying reverse that trend.