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Jewish World Review May 2, 2000/ 27 Nissan, 5760

Larry Elder

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Consumer Reports


The exploitation of the student-athlete -- A COURAGEOUS University of Tennessee professor finds herself under fire. Her crime? Dr. Linda Bensel-Meyers, who teaches English, puts the student part of the so-called student-athlete first, the athlete part second.

In 1995, the professor first informed the university that athletes receive special and unfair treatment. The school, she said, did not take her assertions seriously. Dr. Bensel-Meyers then reviewed records of 39 athletes. She says she found serious academic violations, including tutors writing students' papers, and even a pattern of changing grades from an "F" to an "Incomplete." Dr. Bensel-Meyers said once the students' athletic eligibility expired, and the athletes' value to the school disappeared, the "Incomplete" often reverted to an "F."

She also insisted that the university uses the Americans with Disabilities Act to further coddle student-athletes. How? The school designates some student-athletes as "at risk," presumably meaning those likely to struggle academically. The school then "accommodates" these "at risk" student-athletes by lowering academic standards and assigning Mickey Mouse classes for these "disabled" students. But doesn't the NCAA police this?

In her report to the school, Dr. Bensel-Meyers said, "Because the National Collegiate Athletic Association has a vested interest in keeping profitable collegiate teams viable, using the NCAA to oversee academics within the Athletics Department makes as much sense as letting the fox protect the chicken farm."

For its part, the NCAA's records show student-athletes graduating at a higher rate than the overall student body, 58 percent to 56 percent, respectively. And one could argue that many "disadvantaged" athletes nevertheless benefit from the academic experience, watered-down majors aside.

Exploitation, Dr. Bensel-Meyers calls it. "Many of the University of Tennessee's athletes are minorities or disadvantaged," she said, "they need serious courses, given the long odds of playing pro ball."

Few collegiate ballplayers ever set foot on an NFL field, a major league baseball diamond, or an NBA hard court. Even for a few fortunate athletes, careers usually end quickly, with the average NFL player in the league less than four years. But what happens when the music stops, when draft day comes and goes, and the phone does not ring?

First, stop calling these kids student-athletes. Cut the pretense, tell the truth -- that many of these kids generate money for the university, and many institutions care more about that than the academic preparedness of the student.

Fine, why not then simply pay these kids?

The NCAA deems it OK for high-profile coaches like Indiana's Bobby Knight or former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson to cut shoe deals and shoot commercials. But don't let the NCAA catch a student accepting a suit or a make-work job from a university booster.

Many say, "Look, these kids knew the deal when they walked on campus. It's up to them to get a meaningful education. And many student-athletes do."

True. And many see visions of the NFL and couldn't care less about the quality of their academic experience, an attitude frequently not discouraged by coaches, staff, professors, as well as the university administration. Fine.

But these tax-supported colleges and universities serve as a free farm system for professional sports. Why not let the student player enjoy a bit of the riches? If the athlete gets injured, as often happens, at least he or she will have earned some money. The school could now, with a straight face, admit a "student-athlete" with lower grades and standardized test scores. After all, the kid may or may not get a meaningful degree, or have a positive academic experience, but he certainly will earn a bit of cash in the meantime. And why can't a college bid for a student-athlete the way pros bid for draftees?

But the NCAA is not a fan of the free market. Joseph Crowley, former president of the NCAA and current president of the University of Nevada, put it this way, "The day our members decide it's time to pay players will be the day my institution stops playing." Can the NCAA afford it? Well, there might be a bit of money left over from their recent $6 billion, multi-year contract with CBS.

We live in a country where a judge called Microsoft an unfair monopoly. Yet the government allows colleges and universities to band together, with rules and regulations that preclude a college -- even if it chose to -- from offering money, the way they do to recruit professors.

Fred McKissack, writing for The Progressive, suggests taking a look at pay-for-play, "Like millions of fans, I'm more than willing to drink beer and eat bowls of nachos as I watch college ball. It's great entertainment. Maybe it's time to pay the entertainers -- and not just the schools that exploit them."

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