Josh Kendall

NCAA must address academic vs. athletic tension quickly

The SEC’s powerbrokers will gather next week in Miramar Beach, Fla., for their annual spring meetings. They’ll talk about satellite camps. They’ll talk about how to get more men’s basketball teams into the NCAA Tournament. They’ll talk about the recruiting calendar.

Here’s what they should be talking about:

“Academic sacrifices are being made. It is not uncommon for student-athletes to be forced to change their majors due to practice and competition schedules, either because they cannot schedule the classes and other requirements they need, or they cannot keep up with their academic demands due to their sport’s time demands. Student-athletes are also discouraged from taking certain majors from the outset due to their athletic demands. Many student-athletes struggle to schedule all the classes they need so as not to conflict with practice time. This becomes increasingly challenging as they specialize in their academic careers. Student-athletes in most sports are also missing significant class time due to travel and competition. Another major issue is that student-athletes find it very difficult to attend labs, participate in required internships, study abroad, and complete required clinical or observation hours.”

That’s on page 16 of a 22-page report released this week by the Pac-12 at its annual spring meetings. The report focused on the application and efficiency of the NCAA’s 20-hour rule, which states that student-athletes (The NCAA always refers to them as student-athletes, which we’ll get back to). It’s a well-meaning and important study, but they’ve buried the lead as we say in this business.

The management of the 20-hour rule is a nuanced challenge with a lot of gray area. The academic issue at question here is black and white.

The NCAA’s first counter-punch toward the “players must be compensated more” contingent is always to point out the value of a college degree, and the NCAA is absolutely right on that issue. The average lifetime earnings of a college graduate are $1 million higher than that of a high school graduate (an 84 percent increase from $1.3 million to $2.3 million), a 2011 study by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found. Many young people are mortgaging their future for that piece of paper. Student loan balances at U.S. institutions have reached $1.2 trillion, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland recently reported.

A college degree is expensive and worth it, and it can be a transformative accomplishment in the life of a person and even an entire family. A free one? That’s a big deal, but it’s only a big deal if the student-athlete – and everyone whose paycheck comes from the NCAA always says the words in that order – picks their collegiate path.

Too often they don’t.

“When I tried to major in Economics, they told me you’re either going to miss a lot of class or a lot of practice; it didn’t sound like an option,” one Pac-12 athlete told the conference, according to its report.

“Many athletes told stories of changing majors, sometimes well into their academic careers, and not being able to graduate on time due to their sport’s time demands,” the report stated.

That’s not an experience limited to West Coast athletes. It’s happening everywhere in major college athletics. Flip through any SEC media guide and read through the majors listed in player biographies. You’ll see statistically abnormal clusters grouped in two or three fields of study.

“I would not say it’s widespread at all that student-athletes can’t major in what they want to major in, but the view of our schools is even if there’s a handful in an athletics department, that’s too many,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told USA Today.

Good for Scott for having his league lead the way on this issue. Shame on him for suggesting it’s not widespread. It is way too widespread.

The NCAA must find a structure that allows all college athletes to major in whatever field they desire and have the time to excel in that field. If it can’t do that, then at least start calling them “athlete-students” because that’s what they are now.