College Football 101: College Athletes Deserve Academic Credit for Playing

Tate WatkinsContributor INovember 16, 2011

Myron Rolle, Rhodes Scholar
Myron Rolle, Rhodes ScholarJim McIsaac/Getty Images

College athletes are sports’ tragic heroes, at least as Taylor Branch paints them. They produce billions of dollars in revenues for athletic departments, conferences, and television networks but many can’t afford a night out at the movies.

Branch’s cover story in the October issue of The Atlantic is still spinning off responses, rebuttals, and follow-ups. But all the attention on to-pay-or-not-to-pay ignores a clear way that the system slights college athletes who play big-time sports: Players who eat, sleep and breathe football and basketball receive zero college credit for it.

Take college football players. They start spring practice a few months after the end of the previous season, lift weights and work on conditioning during the entire offseason, endure summer heat waves during “voluntary” workouts, then put on pads for August camp and two- and three-a-days.

Once the season arrives, they do not spend most of their weeks in the library—the majority of their hours are filled practicing, training, attending team and position meetings, and studying film.

Instead of feigning ignorance about why big-time college athletes are on campus in the first place, universities should award academic credit for the hours athletes already devote to sports.

Most Division 1 football and basketball players, at least, choose a school based on its athletic program rather than its academic prestige. And players who aspire to professional careers may barely consider academics when choosing a school. 

If you think you’ve got a good chance to be the next ‘Melo or Megatron, you’re probably not going to weigh an institution’s academic reputation over its athletics program. There’s a reason that even aspiring medical doctor and eventual Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle played football at Florida State instead of Princeton.

Yet universities and the NCAA and other holier-than-thou onlookers never fail to stress the fact that student precedes athlete in the term “student athlete.”

Last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lamented college athletes’ graduation rates, noting about basketball players specifically:

One out of five men’s teams in the NCAA tournament has graduated less than 40 percent of their players in recent years. If you can’t manage to graduate two out of five players, how serious are the institution and the coach about their players’ academic success?

Should it be so surprising that basketball programs in the NCAA tourney are possibly more serious about excelling at Division 1 basketball than academics? Does the tournament’s $10.8 billion television contract not make it evident that some players might take practice more seriously than English class?

It’s awful whenever college athletes don’t perform well-enough academically to graduate. But the trade-off between spending time studying or practicing is clear to any casual fan, let alone the players.

By awarding athletes a few class credits per semester, universities would simply recognize and reward players for the hours upon hours of sports-related work and studying they already do. It would also ease players’ already packed schedules and increase the chance that many of them graduate.

College athletes focus on a highly specialized field in which they excel—much like a biochemistry major does, or at least a band member. If students get elective class credit for playing in the band on Saturdays, why not for playing on the field? Athletes often go on to coaching careers after their playing days are over, so the course credit would be relevant for post-graduation employment opportunities for many of them.

Not everyone can be ‘Melo—or Myron Rolle. Giving players academic credit would benefit athletes at both extremes of the spectrum and everywhere in between while finally acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the athletic department—athletes are here first and foremost to play ball.