That Broken Leg, Ctd

by Doug Allen

A reader who teaches student-athletes disagrees with Jon Green on the athlete work ethic:

I teach classes at a MAJOR sports university and have students who are going into the NFL draft. Every one of my student athletes is among my most conscientious, polite, and hardworking students. In fact, if I took my student-athletes of any sport and put them up against the regular student body, I would choose to teach the athletes every day of the week. Sure, they have a support system that keeps them in school, makes them go to class, and offers tutoring, but, um, good? I have problems with the exploitation of student athletes, but I have never had any problems with their in-class conduct. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that a few bad student-athletes get the press and tarnishes all of their reputation, but do you really believe that athletes who are monitored constantly are worse people and/or students than your average frat house? In my experience, the athletes are WAY better.

Another reader lists some of the support she received as a student-athlete:

Every medical expense I ever needed during college, for any reason, was covered by the athletic department. This included birth control, routine eye appointments, contact lenses. For those who had any major injury, surgery was completely paid for. To help with rehab, there were daily visits with personal trainers who tailored programs to your specific injury.

When I became depressed my senior year, the athletic director immediately sent me to a therapist.  I’ll never forget the day she told me, “we will pay for every visit you need, and we will do everything we can to get you better.” They even paid for anti-depressants, and this continued even after my eligibility was up. Did I mention I was a non-revenue-producing women’s soccer player, it was not a sports-related injury, and the grand total of my care over four years must have cost unimaginable sums of money?

While this is by no means every athlete’s experience, I’m guessing most large (football) schools provide their students with similarly extensive care, especially to high-profile athletes in revenue sports. And for those of you getting ready to pick a college, you might want to consider not only where you want to get your degree if you’re severely injured and can’t play again, but also where you’re able to get the best resources to get you better again.

Another distinguishes between the big-money sports and others:

Both football and basketball have high-paying professional leagues that apply exclusionary age rules to their labor pool and rely heavily on college sports for player development.  So an NBA-caliber college freshman – or an NFL-caliber freshman or sophomore – isn’t being treated to a free education enriched by some athletic competition; he’s being screwed out of a chance to get paid in the draft before risking injury in an NCAA season.

Not every NCAA athlete is getting screwed.  Hell, not every football or basketball player is getting screwed.  It’s great that you enjoyed playing sports in college, and it’s great that lots of other people also have their experience enriched by playing on a team. But please, please don’t be so dense as to let that obscure the fact that there are hundreds of kids who play so well at popular sports that their labor would be worth hundreds of thousands or millions on an open market, who are playing college sports for free because there is no open market to sell it on. That’s the trick the NCAA wants to pull, and it isn’t helpful to be credulously repeating it.

It seems to me that this reader has more of a problem with the draft eligibility rules that prevent these athletes from going straight from high school to the pros than with the funding of college athletes. As to the point that “there is no open market to sell it on,” that’s simply untrue for basketball. Current Milwaukee Bucks star Brandon Jennings opted [NYT] to play professional basketball in Italy out of high school rather than attending the University of Arizona, and the NBA Development League (pdf) allows all players over 18.

Another reader questions the relevance of my own experience:

With all due respect to your Ultimate Frisbee career (just a guess, but amirite?), you’re conflating two very different things. No one is suggesting that schools do away with sports that don’t make money, or paying athletes that compete in those sports. We are talking about allowing some of the money generated by a huge enterprise to go to those who make it possible. No one wants to take your experience on a club team away from you, but neither is anyone demanding that you should have been paid for it. This is about relatively simple economics, and I’m not sure that your point has any relevance to the actual discussion.

This reader is right, I played Ultimate in college. But I was not trying to argue that I should have been paid for my experience (I definitely should not have), I was simply pointing out that the opportunity to play a sport at the college level could be considered a reward in and of itself, and that is something to take into account when discussing whether or not student-athletes are being “exploited.” I was willing to pay out-of-pocket for this chance, and this is why you see students trying to walk on to teams even if there isn’t a scholarship available for them: because playing on a team at a competitive level can be fun and rewarding.

I’m not so sure that this is a case of “relatively simple economics,” either. Most of the discussion of student-athletes assume that the benefits flow only one way: scholarship athletes in big-money sports get nothing (except for scholarships, medical care, tutoring, the opportunity to showcase their skills…) while the schools reap all of the rewards. But I think the relationship is more symbiotic than that. College sports teams get the benefits of a built-in fan base. Across all 338 teams in NCAA Division 1 basketball, attendance at each home game averaged over 5,000 fans during 2012 (with schools like Louisville as high as 21,000 per game), while the 16 teams in the NBA’s D-League averaged about 2,800 fans per game in the 2010-2011 season despite an arguably higher level of play. Fans flock to see their favorite programs play, not necessarily the star players.

As I said before, I would like to see more long-term thinking from colleges to help ensure that sports-related injuries like Ware’s don’t force the athlete to leave school for financial reasons. But paying athletes? I’m just not there yet.