Sports and education: a problem of culture

By The Beacon | March 6, 2014 2:42am

Maggie Smet |

“I don’t need to study, I’m just going to get a full ride to play football at OSU.” I’ll never forget this comment from a student while working at Roosevelt High School. He was insistent, even as a freshman, that going to college would simply rely on football. I knew to warn him that getting a football scholarship wouldn’t be easy, and that his grades would be important. But I didn’t know to warn him of the hardships he would face if he even managed to get that scholarship.

For many years, I harbored a grudge against college athletes. Why was I paying more to study at school, while they were paying less to play sports? My animosity towards big college sports heavily influenced my college decision. I could never stomach going to a school where athletics was a huge focus of attention and money.

Once coming to UP, every interaction with student athletes and athletics has been extremely positive. (Anyone who has witnessed me screaming wildly at a soccer game can attest to my change of heart regarding sports.) I respect all the things our Pilot athletes balance in order to succeed in the classroom and on the field.

However, I could never shake the nagging animosity towards those big NCAA Division I athletes. Why should they be treated like royalty in the place of students doing extraordinary academic work?

I realized after reading and watching the documentary “Schooled” that my anger was not towards the athletes themselves, but the larger system of college sports and the NCAA, especially for football and basketball, the real NCAA money-makers.

The NCAA holds that, in the spirit of amateurism, players that bring in millions of dollars for school can only be compensated through free tuition, room and board. But when compared to the kind of money their sports programs are raking in, the difference is staggering.

According to Forbes Magazine, the University of Texas generated $109 million in revenue last year, $34.5 million of that was just from ticket sales. Notre Dame’s football team brought in $78 million last year, $46 million of which was pure profit. The list goes on and on, until the millions start to lose their meaning. But when compared to what the players get in return for their hard work, it seems astronomical.

Meanwhile, 86 percent of college student athletes live below the poverty line according to a study by the National College Players Association. Between practices, class, travelling for games and trying to eat and sleep, it’s almost impossible for someone to hold down another job. For those from humble backgrounds, this means that while tuition is covered, basic necessities aren’t. They may play in front of thousands of adoring fans, but come home to no food in the fridge.

That college education may be priceless, but many athletes simply aren’t getting the education they’re playing for.

At the University of North Carolina, learning specialist Mary Willingham exposed the unpreparedness of the University’s football and basketball teams. Her research on the reading levels of UNC-Chapel Hill football and basketball from 2004-2012 found that 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels and eight to ten percent read below a third-grade level.

Of course, there are student athletes who succeed and excel in both academics and sports. The problem is not the individuals. It is a culture that prizes athletics over meaningful education.  When millions of dollars depend on athletic achievement, academics will fall behind for these students. That’s just not fair - to anyone. To the athletes, their peers, their professors or the institution.

Although this culture may not be a concern at UP, we as college students should be informed about what’s happening to our peers at other schools.  We should be concerned about these universities and the culture they are perpetuating.

If I could go back to Roosevelt and find that student, I would show him the statistics. I would let him hear from student athletes who struggled. I would warn him of what he’s in for: long days, long nights, no compensation for his work and, perhaps, a subpar education. It’s critical for kids like him, kids who dream of making a better life for themselves through college athletics, to know it’s never going to be a free ride.

Maggie Smet is a senior education and English major. She can be reached at