The Forum | Costs

The Road to Athletic Glory Crumbles at the Gates of the Ivory Tower

March 5, 2018 by Christine Ravold

The late winter ritual of filling in the NCAA March Madness Bracket is nearly upon us. The risk-takers will bet on the success of student athletes, and loyal alumni will cheer their teams on, hoping to make it to the last dance, the NCAA Championship Final. But for those concerned about college costs and educational quality, March Madness is mired in problems. Sustaining Division I Basketball is expensive for students and taxpayers, but these macro issues fail to capture the disservice done to young athletes whose only goal is to become a professional basketball player.  

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and universities across the country justify college athletics as a way to mold student athletes into well-rounded citizens. The idea can be traced to ancient Greece. The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales observed that physical exertion and mental sharpness often go hand-in-hand, and that the discipline necessary for building a sound body is also good for cultivating a sound mind. But the incentives in Division I sports don’t support these virtues. In practice, television companies, professional sports leagues, and occasionally the universities—but not the students—stand to gain the most by subverting these values.

Talented athletes receive scholarships that appear to open doors for underserved students who wouldn’t have otherwise enrolled in college, but many are shortchanged as basketball dominates their schedules. Coaches and administrators expend great effort to keep marginal students eligible to play, even though some students are not academically prepared to handle college-level material. Should players receive the academic help they need in order to succeed? Absolutely. But too often, a college degree is incidental to a player’s success on the field or the court.

One-and-Done Basketball Stars

The National Basketball Association (NBA) does have a minor league: the NBA G League. In practice, however, Division I Basketball is a farm league for the NBA. The one-and-done basketball player is a troubling trend in Division I, which seems to designate college teams as an unofficial minor league. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels has criticized it, even as LeBron James called for the NBA and team owners to create a better farm system so that aspiring players have avenues outside of college to pursue an athletic career. 

High school graduates over the age of 19 are allowed to enter the NBA draft, but as some players wait for their birthday to become eligible, they enroll in college. With a year or less to kill, a fair few players accept scholarships to play for Division I basketball teams. They enjoy the opportunity to get in front of talent scouts and grow a fan base. Ostensibly they are learning something off the court, but a handful of players drop out of college after a year. These now-eligible players had no intention of completing college: They were using their time in the NCAA to increase their chances of joining the NBA.

Others choose to finish their degrees and use the court-time to attract the eye of more teams. But for those who do graduate, serious questions have been raised about the value of their sheepskins.

Academic Dishonesty

The infamous “paper classes” offered by the University of North Carolina for 18 years is only the most famous example of colleges hurting their students in the long-run for short-term gain. Syracuse University also massaged players’ academic records and gave them easy grades to keep them academically eligible for games. (That’s nothing to say of behavioral issues like violence and drug abuse that are reported throughout college basketball.)

The demands on these students are high. They attend practice or training most days during the season. That cuts into valuable homework and study time. One of the bright spots about college basketball—providing more opportunities to marginal students—dims once players realize they aren’t set up for success. The NCAA, in a misguided attempt to keep schools academically honest, prohibits schools from providing disproportionate academic help. While academically feeble courses shouldn’t be offered, extra tutoring would seem to prioritize the academic success of players.

Talented athletes who can’t cut it are set up to fail—either now or later. If players don’t make it to the NBA, their degrees are unlikely to provide them with the preparation they need for other careers. The opportunity to tap into the well-examined life should be something all students want to take advantage of, but if they aren’t interested in intellectual life, or intellectual skills necessary for a career, then encouraging them to attend college—at taxpayer expense—would appear to be a bad investment.

Lower the Stakes

Lowering the stakes of Division I basketball is a solution that will save NBA hopefuls time and taxpayers money. “Sound mind, sound body” isn’t the endgame in Division I ball. It’s about winning and hopefully making it to the NBA for the players and the institutions. There’s no reason for taxpayers to support this level of investment to warehouse the NBA’s unofficial minor league. Divisions II and III have a better school/sport balance, and scholarship students are more focused on the primary mission of their schooling: education.

For every heartbreaking athletic scandal, there are, of course, success stories. Former NCAA Division I basketball stars do go on to become successful athletes and citizens. But as long as the current system is incentivized to put wins over students’ athletic success—and as long as Division I is seen as the path to the NBA—corruption will continue. Can we really afford to burden students and taxpayers with these costs?


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