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Traditional college athletics is gone, and there is no going back

College athletics is on the brink of momentous change. But schools shouldn’t yield to pressure to eliminate academic life for athletes entirely.

There is much consternation about what the future holds for Division 1 college athletics. The marriage between the transfer portal and NIL, combined with the latest settlement to pay student athletes directly, is an even more unfathomable Pandora’s box than originally imagined. While the implications for all sports programs are profound, the risks are most obvious for the two revenue generators — football and basketball. For many institutions, the need to maintain the viability of these sports programs is a financial imperative, as well as an alumni demand.

However, with compensation mandates and the constant threat of the portal, the pressure to reduce, if not eviscerate, academic requirements becomes unbearable. The inevitable detachment from academics, when joined with yearly portal transfers motivated by playing opportunities and monetary consideration, runs the risk of these athletic programs becoming nothing more than semi-pro farm teams that happen to brand themselves with university logos. Despite these challenges, there are steps that could be taken to maintain the integrity of college athletics, mitigate the disruptive impact of yearly portal transfers, and enhance the educational opportunities of these sought-after individuals. One such step would be to offer a universal academic program that more realistically recognizes both student-athlete needs and aspirations through a focused NCAA-wide common core curriculum and major.

College education should not be a hindrance to a student athlete’s goals, but a facilitator. If we want to ensure that athletes remain students, actions need to be taken that would maintain the integrity of college athletics and benefit these young men and women. Additionally, they should be given a legitimate reason to remain students. There will always be the Andrew Lucks who study Architectural Design; however, many know that the reputation of “rocks for jocks”–type courses still pertains to much of college athletics. In the student athletes’ defense, many of them see their time in college (now being paid to play) as a money-making opportunity and a step toward full professional athletics. Unless they truly enjoy academics or have the foresight to think about life after sports, many currently view school as a diversion and will often take the easiest route possible.

The concern is not simply that too many student athletes take the easiest route; rather, it is that there eventually might be a push to end true collegiate sports altogether. With direct payment and an open transfer portal, there is little distinction between college athletics and professional athletics besides the athletes being enrolled in classes. What happens when athletes become recognized employees of a university? Employees are not required to take classes to be paid. There will be plenty of arguments that these paid athletes should not be wasting their time with school when they are just taking the easiest classes anyway. We need to provide a reason to pursue academics in such a way as to guarantee a sufficient education for their time in college, as well as a way to provide them with the knowledge to ensure their future well-being. Regardless of popular perception, education is paramount for even the most competitive athletic programs — as Nick Saban argued, “the No. 1 goal and objective when they come to school here is that they graduate. They’ve got a lot more days ahead of them when they’re not going to play football than when they are, regardless.”

A student athlete majoring in this degree should be no different than a regular student majoring in engineering to eventually become an engineer – if a school did not provide an engineering degree, why would he attend that school? The goal of this major is not to be easy but to be relevant. While critics might consider this athlete-focused major easier compared to others, it would actually be pertinent to what these students currently do that makes the university money. We would rather have these individuals take classes that help them master their craft than take easy classes that have no relevance to their work or the real world . . . further, college athletes taking any classes are much better than semi-pros who take no classes at all.

For revenue-generating sports, the old days of true college athletics are over; an attempt to maintain the education system of the past will just lead to universities that have regular students and unenrolled semi-pro athletes who play with that university’s logo on their helmets. Given the NCAA still maintains authority over college athletics, should it not work with college institutions to design a major that would be available to all Division 1 student athletes? This would be a way to guarantee a sufficient education for their time in college and beyond, as well as a way to provide them with the knowledge to ensure their future well-being.

Only 1.6 percent of college football players go on to the NFL; however, one needs to think about the number of college football players who go on to coach football, train athletes, enter sports media or use their skills and experiences as an athlete for sports-related employment. College education should help these young men and women further their goals, but also help them develop the necessary skills they will need once their playing careers end — this applies to learning about coaching, kinesiology, training, media, and management.

Most importantly, universities should be educating the very students who are making money on behalf of the school about personal finance. According to a survey from Intuit, only 34 percent of adults can pass a basic financial literacy quiz — there is a need for financial literacy among all adults, particularly among those who are going to be making a lot of money at a young age. This major could be set up not only to teach important financial skills and lessons to manage money in college and beyond, but it could also incorporate a sports management type of education that would allow the student athletes to best represent and monetize their current situation and utilize their gifts in other ways once their careers are over. Further, classes like basic accounting and finance could teach young people how to manage money, and marketing would be useful to further educate them on how to brand their positions.

One should not neglect the mental health and well-being of these student athletes, either. Incorporating psychology into this major would help these young men and women understand more about themselves, their teammates, and those close to them. This would also teach them how to approach their future careers, whether it be in professional athletics, coaching, or something else. Sports psychology is a burgeoning industry, and many college programs have their own sports psychologist. Meeting with psychologists has helped plenty of student athletes, so wouldn’t studying the field help them as well?

Being a Division 1 student athlete is like having a full-time job. The NCAA allots 20 hours a week for meetings and practice, but we all know it takes more than that to win at the highest level. Further, one cannot neglect the hours put in off the field with individual training, recovery, and film study. Some college students do research and get credit for the hours they put in the lab and the library to assist with new discoveries during their time in college. Student athletes play an important role, not only in making the school money, but enhancing a university’s culture. Just as students get credit for research, what if those studying this major, got credit for extra hours spent studying film and meeting with coaches?

With money involved in college athletics, there is now a pro-style expectation where both parties need to benefit — the athlete gets paid and is therefore expected to work on his craft on his own time. This would certainly benefit the team, but it would also give academic legitimacy to the expected extra hours put in off the field and outside formal meetings. Student athletes could log in hours, similar to lab hours, as part of a participation credit, benefiting the team (which benefits the university) and benefiting themselves in terms of a disciplined schedule and continuing to master their craft.

The most important feature of this major would be its universality across all Division 1 college programs. Regardless of what one’s stance is on the transfer portal, all should hope that these student athletes still get a college education and a degree. Different colleges have different majors; even if one were to transfer and work toward the same major, there are often different requirements. Creating this major as part of a common core would allow credits to transfer freely, and thus, transferring from one school to another would, academically, be a seamless transition. The NCAA should work with universities on behalf of the young men and women who make its business viable, rather than let the current frustrations boil over.

Traditional college athletics is gone, and there is no going back. The financial opportunities for certain student athletes have exploded. These new realities are a challenge for universities attempting to create a balance between semi-professional athletics and academics. Some say this is the end, as we are in this period of exploration and experimentation. I say, regardless, the focus should be on building our future — whether athletes or scholars. It has been shown money alone is a temporary solution. Knowledge is power. Adding them together helps create success.

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