As I settled in to listen to a panel of four recently graduated student-athletes discuss their views on college athletics, the last thing I expected to hear about was The World Bank, the United Nations and various countries’ GNPs.
The event was a national symposium sponsored by Northeastern University’s Center for Study of Sport and the day’s focus was the welfare of the student-athlete. As a former All-American basketball player — and having worked at the NCAA and most recently as Associate Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference — I was interested in the direction the dialogue would take.
The discussion began with a powerful story told by Byron Hurt, a former quarterback at Northeastern University, about his last play in college. He very vividly described standing in the pocket and firing a pass toward the sideline. His voice grew more passive as he told of the pass being intercepted and returned for a touchdown. What was most disturbing was the lifeless way in which he told the group that at that point he could not have cared less about the interception, the ensuing loss and the end of his college athletic career. “The game was no longer fun,” he said. “They killed all of the love I had for it.”
Tasha Downing, a former track student-athlete at The University of Florida, told of being pressured to return from an injury sooner than her body was telling her, resulting in a more serious injury. And still another, Myles McLean, a former linebacker at Northeastern, talked of feelings of racial isolation on what was an overwhelmingly white campus.
The panelists then began to discuss the need for student-athletes to have a voice in helping to shape athletics policy at both the institutional and national levels. Particular attention was paid to the NCAA’s failure to provide a meaningful vehicle for such input into its restructuring proposal which was adopted during its January 1996 Convention, prompting McLean to liken their status to that of a Third World country. In most world governance agencies such as The World Bank and the United Nations, he pointed out, those countries with the with the largest GNP or greatest military power control the vote. Third World countries, he continued, are largely unheard from and, more often than not, simply viewed as pawns in world power politics.
Various administrators, some senior ranking NCAA officials, were challenged to respond to this concern. Unfortunately, their responses served only to highlight just how far apart student-athletes and administrators are in their perception and understanding of today’s student-athlete experience.
For example, more than one administrator indicated that a formalized mechanism for student-athlete input at the national level was largely unnecessary. If student-athletes have concerns, the administrators said, they should discuss them with their athletics directors and coaches. But in the minds of the panelists, voicing concern about a coach’s overemphasis on athletics, gender or racial discrimination, or questionable ethical behavior — especially to the coach or athletic director involved — will more likely result in them being labeled a “bad apple” or “malcontent,” or worse. Many coaches feel that student-athletes who are not eternally and uncompromisingly “loyal” to the program do not deserve to have their one-year scholarship renewed.
The student-athletes’ reality is that at the institutional level they can voice only very limited concerns in very limited ways. Regardless of whether this is true, the fact that they believe it is makes it important to provide them opportunities to offer input at the national level. Issues relating to the student-athlete/coach relationship — coaches’ responsibilities as educators, the win-at-all-cost philosophy and the student-athlete’s right to be provided a legitimate opportunity to earn a well-balanced academic, social and athletic experience — are issues that must be addressed not only on campus, but also in a highly visible and national forum. National dialogue serves to raise awareness and spur action at the local level. And because NCAA rules affect them most directly, student-athletes should be provided the opportunity to shape those rules.
The need to provide legitimate opportunities for meaningful student-athlete input is only magnified by the fact that it is through their efforts and sacrifices of time, energy and body that college athletics has developed into a major business enterprise. Student-athletes fill arenas and stadiums and are most directly responsible for the NCAA’s $1.7 billion television contract with CBS. And it is through the efforts of student-athletes that more than $400 million will be generated by a new seven-year agreement, brokered by ABC, that will match college football’s top two teams in postseason play. In most businesses, when you are so directly responsible for generating revenue, you usually have some input into shaping the conditions under which you work.
The most glaring example of how far removed administrators are from the real world of the student-athlete occurred when a long-time administrator expressed dismay at the panelists’ criticism of their athletics experience. This administrator then talked of his wonderful experience as a student-athlete — in the 1950s! The issues being discussed on this day had nothing to do with his experience in the 1950s or my experience in the late 1970s. Although we should draw upon our personal experiences, current student-athletes are concerned with the issues they are facing today.
This interchange provided all the evidence necessary for the need to have, as part of the newly restructured NCAA, a direct line of communication from student-athletes to presidents. Currently, the NCAA Division I student-athlete committee will report to a management council. consisting of athletics administrators, conference commissioners, and faculty athletics representatives. This management council will then report to a board of directors consisting of presidents. While well intentioned, this structure is inadequate. As previously illuminated, student-athlete views, particularly those that are critical, are too often trivialized and dismissed by athletic administrators. Thus, the committee should be provided a direct line of access to the president’s board.
Student-athletes should be celebrated as being courageous for standing up for something in which they believe. Each panelist would tell you that they believe in college athletics, but only if it is kept in the proper perspective. During recruitment. and often thereafter, they were told that college athletics was about them. They bought into the ideal that college athletics was about education, the love of the game and the opportunity to earn a well-balanced academic, social and athletic experience. Now, after it is over, they are wondering what went wrong. It is their belief in the student-athlete ideal, not any desire to tear down or destroy college athletics, that prompts them to speak out.
The restructured NCAA must provide student-athletes a strong and unfiltered voice because college athletics badly needs more of their idealism. We, as administrators, have become too jaded, too businesslike, and too self-interested — so much so that we have forgotten who college athletics is supposed to be about. We have lost our focus and, in the process, crushed these youngsters’ idealism and sapped their enthusiasm for their sport.
And if anyone wants to argue the point, simply ask those young panelists who believed that college sports was about student-athletes, only to find that they are simply a Third World entity in the power politics of big time college athletics.
Dr. John R. Gerdy is an educational consultant located in New York City. He is also a visiting professor in sports administration at Ohio University. He served as associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference from 1989-95 and as a legislative assistant at the NCAA from 1986-89.
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