MIT Sloan Sports Panel Review: Life of the College Student-Athlete

I’m back (apologies for the not-so-brief hiatus)!

In my previous two posts (here and here) I mentioned a few panels that I would go into in a more in-depth post, and Life of the College Student Athlete is first. The panel featured former Duke standout and two-time NBA champion Shane Battier, former South Carolina runningback Marcus Lattimore, Greg McGarity (Athletic Director at University of Georgia), and Amy Huchthausen (Commissioner of the America East Conference).

The panelists began by discussing what they each found to be the biggest issue in the transition from high school to college. Lattimore said preparedness was the chief problem; he only played with South Carolina for three years (meaning he didn’t finish his degree before entering the NFL), and said that students simply aren’t ready for being an athlete in college coming out of high school. Lattimore ended up returning to school after his two-year, injury-riddled NFL career ended, but for many student-athletes who forego their final year of college eligibility, returning to get a degree is not a frequently pursued path.

Battier picked over-scheduling as his number one issue and used himself as an example. Battier said he graduated Duke as a religion major because it fit with his practice schedule, not because it was anything he was particularly interested in. This presents one of the main issues with college student-athletes (at least in my view): the students seem to sometimes focus more on the second half of “student-athlete.” I’m firmly of the belief that “student” comes first in “student-athlete” because academics should always be a priority, but we have seen time and time again, like with the 2005 UNC basketball team, or #1 overall NBA pick Ben Simmons, that student-athletes are mostly there to play sports. Buffalo Bills QB Cardale Jones, who attended The Ohio State University, expressed on Twitter his frustration with the fact that students were told to attend classes: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL [sic], classes are POINTLESS.”

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that there has to be a better system in place than the one currently in place. Large DI programs are not fooling anyone into believing that a majority of their students-athletes in the big sports (football and basketball) are actually attending classes, so the NCAA either needs to stop pretending that the student-athletes are at school to learn, or make it more about education. I don’t have a perfect system to propose, but there has to be something better than the way it’s done now. Introducing a salary for NCAA student-athletes is probably not the best way to go, and as Marcus Lattimore and Shane Battier mentioned, student-athletes are already compensated in other ways. Student-athletes are given comps (free tickets) to every game, but if they don’t give them to family or friends, they aren’t permitted to sell the tickets. Marcus Lattimore questioned the fairness of this practice: ‘The NCAA makes a ton of money off the players’ efforts and we don’t get any cut of that, is that fair?’

Not in any respect. But to be fair, student-athletes in bigger DI programs do get paid, it’s just under the table. We all know what’s going on at those postgame team dinners. Salary really shouldn’t be the main issue here for the student-athletes or the NCAA, and I think Shane Battier had the best point of the entire day when he addressed this issue: “Money wouldn’t be a life changer in college–change lives within college scholarships. If we want to be about education let’s make it about education; offer any student who graduates [and doesn’t forego their college eligibility early to enter any drafts] a full ride to any graduate degree.”

Obviously there are a lot more semantics that need to be ironed out, but this would be a step in the right direction. Student-athletes are already compensated with nicer accommodations while on the road in addition to higher level nutrition, conditioning, etc. so I think the focus, like Battier said, should be on education, not on paying student-athletes. Giving student-athletes a salary is also a slippery slope; should five-star recruits be given more money than walk-ons? And how do you decide who gets how much? What about schools that aren’t as well endowed as top-level programs? There are a lot of variables to introducing a pay scale for student-athletes, so it’s probably better that the NCAA doesn’t.

The panelists addressed a few other issues during the panel, but the other main thing they talked about was the use of social media in college. Greg McGarity said of social media that “It’s more positive than negative, but it’s a balancing act…Twitter is like a resumé.” Personally, I don’t see any issues with student-athletes using social media, but, as Lattimore stressed, the student-athletes need to think before they tweet. Lattimore also added that student-athletes should use their platform in the national spotlight for social activism if they care about an issue, but only if they care about it. McGarity echoed Lattimore’s sentiment: “Students need to know about issues they speak about so they don’t make a fool of themselves.”

Overall, this was solidly one of the best panels of the conference; Battier and Lattimore provided an insider perspective to the college student-athlete life that I hadn’t heard before, and I would assume that many folks in the room had not been exposed to either. McGarity and Huchthausen also provided a depth and knowledge from the upper levels of management in college sports, and it was invaluable to be able to hear from the director of one of the more successful college football programs in the NCAA.

(Image credit: Aaron Heishman via Twitter)

 

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