Last weekend I was emptying my fish pond to get it ready for the summer. While I cleaned the pond, the fish were placed into a relatively small container; no moving water and pretty dirty, to boot. When I went to put them back they did their best to stay put. They lacked the perspective I had about their situation. I knew I’d put them back into a large pond with clean moving water and a much better environment. Problem was, they simply couldn’t see if from my position. Right now, the NCAA faces a myriad of challenges and, unlike many others; it looks like they lack the necessary perspective to help themselves or others.
The constant media coverage of marquee players getting arrested, complaining of “working” without pay, going hungry, a serious academic scandal at UNC, and an onslaught of threats to the NCAA model requires it to take bold and quick action. The alternative is that any NCAA actions may be pre-empted by circumstances that show no sign of slowing down.
In the face of litigation that seems to be turning in favor of those suing for greater benefits the dazzling performance of Shabazz Napier, carrying UConn to another NCAA National basketball title, produced yet another top NCAA player talking about going hungry at night. UConn’s spokesman defending the university by asserting athletes have access to the same cafeterias available to all their students, fails to comprehend the needs of their athletic competitors or even a sense of caring. Litigation may be the only way UConn gets it and makes changes.
A crisis counselor would advise Dr. Emmert and the NCAA Executive Committee to move quickly and to get them moving here are two quick and permissible steps to take.
One, tie food and meals to physical need. A 98-pound, five-foot tall coed studying English cannot be a relevant measure for a six-foot, eight-inch power forward who weighs 240 pounds or a hulking 300 pound lineman. Michael Phelps was said to consume 12,000 calories per day when competing, and while it’s probably significantly less in the off-season, his calorie intake likely stays well north of the average student even at Thanksgiving. In addition, the time constraints alone for a student-athlete managing his or her time between classes, practice, and fitting in meals, also makes getting enough food a challenge for some. Put that athlete at an off-campus location and on some days, there’s simply not enough time to get to the cafeteria.
Let’s face it, athletes are not deciding on a school because it offers great food. However an ample supply of food and the ability to take it back to your living quarters is one option least likely to trigger a violation of an ethical nature and negatively impact their sport. In fact, it may keep athletes from stealing food, being enticed into an impermissible meal from a booster, or subject him/her to being blackmailed because of their acceptance of what would currently be an NCAA rules violation.
Likewise, we know during summer vacations, nutrition for some children suffers because their home situations cannot compensate for the meals they get during the school year. For some elite players, summer vacations and off-season periods are no different other than they can become vulnerable targets for the unscrupulous who often surround them for an opportunity to exploit them or ingratiate themselves with an athlete they hope will translate either now or later into money.
Two, get away from concepts like “average costs”, “all students”, and “official on-campus allowance”. Division I scholarship athletes are neither average nor in need of what the school provides to everyone. They are individuals. Some are wealthy, others poor, some barely qualified, and others are successfully pursuing technical and scientific degrees with the same level of performance off the field as on.
Integrity calls for the recruiting university to focus on whether the student-athlete can be successful when given appropriate and custom designed help in every aspect of his environment. For example, a student who can’t read at the college level cannot succeed in college, period. But there is no reason that a school shouldn’t be able to create a custom-designed program to make him academically competitive. The universities can get rid of rules that limit academic help and personal support. They can expend the funds necessary to achieve academic success, even if they greatly exceed what’s spent on a typical student. That would make the scholarship and college degree exchanged for athletic performance worth the trade and convince most that academics really are the primary focus of a university and their athletic program.
These changes put the focus on success for the student-athlete by dealing with the challenges that stand in their way. They wouldn’t be locked into a set of aid and support designed for an average student. Increased academic success as a custom designed program could include a living situation that provided enhanced study support and resources, far beyond providing a tutor. Freshman athletes could be provided a redshirt year to focus on academics, with limited distractions from practice or team meeting responsibilities. Realistic meal plans that take into account the individual nutritional needs of a player year round and housing that does not put a student out on the street at the end of the Spring semester.
On a personal note, I’m not a big supporter of unions. But, as my favorite business professor often told us, big business got what it deserved when unions came into being, because they simply refused to look at the world from the employee’s perspective. Employers then,as now, who are seen as looking out for those who make their success possible and provide safe environments where employees can improve their situation by working hard, seldom have unions. The NCAA can offer a great deal to athletes and their schools, but it must change it’s perspective and get moving before its options are foreclosed and others get to decide its fate.