“It’s an absolute skill to read the game, it requires cognitive and intellectual ability,” Van Rheenen says. Players “are literally looking at cues and prompts, like an avid reader does. People don’t give credit to athletes, because they think it’s instinctive. It’s not. It’s cognitive.”
When you watch players on both sides, imagine how it feels to do homework at midnight with head nodding and limbs throbbing from soreness or injury, a fatigue no one else understands. Yet despite this, they will graduate at a higher rate than their peers. The latest graduation success rate numbers for the ’Bama team was 69 percent last year; LSU’s 77 percent, both considerably higher than the national rate for all students.
Unmotivated? Low intelligence? Harmful to academic integrity?
The dirty little secret of college sports is not that Richardson and his teammates are on the bottom rung in compensation, driven into an underground economy. It’s that they are on the bottom rung of expectations. Too many NCAA presidents secretly believe they are unworthy of teaching, and should be grateful just to be on campus.
Ask yourself if one reason we jump at the idea of pay-for-play is because it sounds easier than actually educating them. Payment is a pain reliever; it would make some people, including athletes, feel a little better. But it’s an Anacin solution, not a cure, and we need to think more creatively.
The real crux of what plagues college athletics is this: A relatively small number of high-profile athletes, isolated in two commercial sports, enjoy scholarships (and some extracurricular benefits) while having what we consider to be weak connections to their classrooms. Division I football and basketball have become so heavily commercialized and so demanding that we worry the value of a scholarship is not an equitable or genuine repayment-in-kind for athletes any more.
But why isn’t enhancing their scholarship just as good an answer as handing them cash?
What if we gave them better tools and services, more academic credit toward degrees, and more support and incentives?
Tony Smith, the captain of the Cal football team in 1992, received his PhD in education and is now the superintendent of schools in Oakland. He suggests that instead of cash payouts we talk about putting licensing money from jersey sales in an incentive fund that every graduating member of a team gets an equal cut of. A small account might coax them toward a degree and help them transition when they leave school.
Money can be a mark of respect — or not. It can also be a form of dismissal. If you want a kid to feel less used, don’t just pay him. Try honoring him.