The Freak Show: Our Professional College Athletes

The recent revelations about the Ohio State University football team really underscore what a joke big time college athletics has become. Football and basketball at the college level are far from the ideal of student activities. These are big bucks generating businesses that operate under the guise of non-profit, or at least altruistic, institutions that are supposed to be dedicated to educating the youth of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, what started out as a few players who traded team memorabilia, such as autographed programs, uniforms and posters, in exchange for tattoos, has turned into a massive scandal that includes numerous players from the team participating in activities that are prohibited. The star quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, has been implicated in receiving up to $40,000, as well as cars. He recently dropped out of school. The coach, Jim Tressel, who had been held up as a pinnacle of Bible reading virtue, apparently knew about a lot of these activities, facilitated some of them and then lied about it to the NCAA when they started investigating. He resigned amid allegations that he had been a part of these activities in previous positions he held at the school and elsewhere.

This comes amid scandals that cost Bruce Pearl, the basketball coach at Tennessee, his job, and the vacating of the 2004 national football championship by USC for violations involving payments to star player Reggie Bush. He also was forced to return the Heisman Trophy he won as the best player in the country in 2005.

The wife of Colt McCoy, former quarterback at Texas who is now with the Cleveland Browns, recently made comments about how hard it is for the players to turn down all the money and perks that are constantly being offered to them. And while her husband didn’t partake in it, her comment obviously reinforces the idea that it is common and widespread.

President Obama and members of Congress have been calling for the implementation of a national championship in college football. I am a big sports fan, but what they are calling for will only exacerbate the problem. What should happen is the exact opposite. If we’re serious about the future of our country, and about the fact that education is a vital factor in achieving the goal of maintaining our country as the major world power, we have to go back to the idea that college sports teams are an extracurricular activity, and are played by real students.

Let’s be serious about this. Players at the major sports universities are not there for an education. They are let in even though they don’t qualify academically, and most are not going to graduate. And even ones that do graduate are given such breaks that they are an embarrassment to the school. I once saw an interview with a star NBA basketball player in which he answered a question about his team’s performance by stating, “We got to get more better.” This guy attended Georgetown University. You mean to tell me a student at one of our country’s prestigious universities doesn’t know how to speak proper English? “We got to get more better.” Give me a break.

The answer isn’t to make sports even bigger, by instituting a national championship tournament (in football), and expanding it (in basketball) that will bring in even bigger bucks and cause the players to miss even more school. We need to get rid of athletic scholarships completely. Make the athletes actually have to qualify to get into schools. Many prominent coaches, such as John Chaney at Temple and John Thompson at Georgetown, have even blasted things such as Proposition 48, which prevented unqualified students from playing their freshmen year until they got their academics in order. They said it was racist, because the only chance poor inner city kids have to get to college is through sports ability.

What they fail to see is that they are dooming a lot of kids by encouraging them to see sports as their salvation. Instead of studying to try and get grades good enough to get into college, they spend all their time practicing or working out. And while it works out for a select few, many, many others are not going to make it into a big time college program. And even worse, very few of these college athletes are going to make it to the pros. So after a couple years in college, they are on the street and are nothing more than Al Bundy, talking about their glory days.

This emphasis on sports has trickled down to high schools well. A few years ago the town next mine had their school budget rejected by the voters. It had increased funds for computers, classroom expansion and Astroturf for the football field. The school board reduced the budget by eliminating the computers and extra classrooms, but kept the Astroturf. That’s the priority?

My old high school sent its baseball team on a trip to Florida to play some schools from out of state. While expensive, they said it was a great educational experience for the kids. Well, how about using that money for something that benefits more than the 20 kids on the baseball team, out of a class of 1,400 students?

In Europe, schools don’t have sports teams like we do here. Schools are for education, and kids participate in sports in locally organized town teams. It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, this obsession with sports at schools. If we want that, let’s be honest, and have the school hire the players out in the open, and it will be another professional league. That’s what it is anyway, so why play games? It’s nothing but big business, generating millions for the major colleges. Are they schools, or are they in the business of entertainment? By putting profits over their stated purpose, they are ruining kid’s lives. It’s time to dismantle the system and start over.