The following op-ed was written for the “God and the New York Times” class at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity.
The Curious Case of Andrew Luck
By JIMMY GAWNE
For years, my dad has been complaining about the state of college sports. He views the NCAA as a ruthless, exploitative organization that allows colleges to take young men and women, make millions of dollars off of them, and give them little in return. These student-athletes, in order to comply with NCAA regulations, must live solely on the financial aid they receive from their university, unable to have a job, unable to accept even the smallest favor that MIGHT put them in breach of NCAA rules.
“Just call them what they are,” my dad says. “Semi-pro athletes. Then, at least, they can make a living wage.”
Scandals surrounding money, favors, and student athletes have pervaded NCAA sports for decades. From Connie Hawkins at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, to Arizona State’s Hedake Smith in the 1990s, to Reggie Bush at the University of Southern California and the whole tawdry mess at the University of Miami, these scandals have gone hand-in-hand with Division I basketball and football, becoming almost accepted by the fans. But worse than the money scandals – and with far less “sex appeal”, thus far less notice – is the issue of the “student” part of the student athlete.
Joe Nocera of the New York Times recently wrote that he believed it was time to end what he calls the “myth” of the student athlete. He suggested several alternatives to the current model, including one wherein the athlete simply plays for the college, and is given the option of receiving a college education. Many of these student athletes are “ill equipped to do college work”, he says, and thus it is hardly worth their time – or the college’s – to force them to attend classes, classes in which the professors are often instructed to “pencil-whip” the student athletes’ grades, so that they meet NCAA eligibility requirements, and do not fall afoul of low grades, such as those that felled Syracuse center Fab Melo just days before the start of the 2012 NCAA tournament.
Nocera’s solution would kill two proverbial birds with one stone. College athletes would no longer be subject to grade requirements that for many are often difficult – if not impossible – to achieve, and they would not be forced to seek financial alternatives that draw the ire of the NCAA. With that in mind, however, such a change would give short shrift to those student athletes who actually DO fulfill the student part of the title.
Let’s consider for a moment Wake Forest University linebacker Joey Ehrmann. Joey is not the best defensive Demon Deacon. He will probably not be drafted by an NFL team after he graduates next year, and will likely need to find a job that makes use of his bachelor’s degree. However, he is a key piece of the Wake Forest defense, and plays that role while attending Wake Forest on an academic scholarship – NOT an athletic scholarship. Given Wake Forest’s academic standards, it stands to reason that Joey is just as good a student as a football player, if not better.
Or let’s consider Jeremy Lin. The new point guard sensation of the NBA before a knee injury cut his season short, Jeremy graduated not from a school known for basketball or athletics at all, but from Harvard University. Harvard does not offer athletic scholarships, meaning that Jeremy attended Harvard for four years on academic scholarships and student loans, maintaining the necessary GPA not only for athletic eligibility but also for continuing academic scholarship. Jeremy graduated from Harvard with a 3.4 GPA.
Perhaps the epitome of student athlete, however, is graduating Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck. During Luck’s second season of football at Stanford – his academic junior year – he broke multiple school records, led the Pac-10 Conference in numerous statistical categories, led the Cardinal to an 11-1 regular season record – their only loss coming against eventual National Championship runner-up Oregon – and a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech University in the Orange Bowl, all while finishing as the runner-up in Heisman Trophy balloting to Auburn University’s Cam Newton. Popular opinion had Luck leaving school, declaring for the NFL draft, and battling Newton to be the number one pick in the 2011 draft by the Carolina Panthers.
Luck stunned athletics pundits everywhere when he opted to return to Stanford for his senior academic year, citing primarily the facts that he had a 3.5 GPA in Stanford’s honors program and was eighty percent of the way to completing his Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree. Though the pundits lambasted Luck for taking this course of action, he had an even better football season in 2011, leading the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl, and all but securing himself the right to step into the shoes Peyton Manning vacated when the Indianapolis Colts utilize the number one pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Throughout all this, Luck maintained his academic standards, and will graduate with his bachelor’s degree with honors in May.
The answer here lies not in removing the “student” part of student athlete, but in strengthening it. Enforce the academic requirements. Make the athletes live up to the student part of the title. If that means that the colleges must invest more heavily in the academic training of the student athletes, then so be it. After all, these are institutions of HIGHER EDUCATION.
Now, it’s true that some athletes still will not be able to fulfill academic requirements, and that means that they won’t be able to go to college. That will prevent them from meeting certain requirements established by the National Basketball Association and National Football League for being eligible for the draft. However, why should that be the problem of colleges? Make that an issue for the NBA and the NFL to address, and let colleges be colleges.