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A free education? So what!

I won’t get into the issue of fairness.  I understand the perception: universities, conferences, coaches, and the NCAA are making truckloads of cash from athletics, but the college athletes are not getting paychecks, despite their contribution to the system.  That, on a most primitive level, just doesn’t seem fair.

I also don’t want to get into the logistical and legal challenges of paying college athletes or allowing them to profit from their names, likenesses, and fame through appearances, autograph signings, etc.  That’s not my issue either.

Rather, my problem in this recent debate over paying college athletes is that there seems to be no value placed on what the college athlete is currently getting: a free education.  A free college education seems to be an afterthought or dismissed altogether.  That sends an awful message.

I’ve spent a lot of time with young black men who truly feel their options in life are the NBA, the NFL, rapping , or the streets.  One young man told me last year that if rapping didn’t work out, he’d go back to robbing people.  That was his life plan.  It is impossible to simply tell that young man and others like him, “go to college!”  Education is a tough sell to young people who haven’t had the value of education explained to them and instilled in them early and often.

Young adults with college degrees earn more than those without degrees.  The current unemployment rate among college graduates is 3.7%, but graduates these days are leaving college with an average of over $35,000 in debt.  Meanwhile, the probability of a high school basketball player eventually making it to the NBA is .03%.  For a high school football player making it to the NFL, it’s .08%.  An education, especially a free one, is of incredible value, even for most big-time athletes.  We devalue it when we argue that college athletes are getting nothing in return.

Of course, the current debate is really about the superstar athletes in the major sports who bring eyes to the TV screens, put fans in the seats, and bring attention to their schools.  But, the national debate can often come off as if ALL athletes are being cheated because they’re only getting a free education.  I hate the message that’s sending: that working your butt off to be a scholarship-worthy athlete only pays off if you get paid cash in college.

Yes, being athletically gifted and working at your sport can lead to great rewards, but please, add free college education to that list.



My son is blessed to have natural athletic skills and his sport of choice, out of all the ones he is great playing, is lacrosse. This is a sport where we really don’t see a lot of AA children playing. He is also very smart and makes good grades. The one thing we knew all throughout his youth was his athletic talent would probably be what helps him pay for college. I sent my son to college telling him to use them just like they will use him. Colleges that probably would have passed on his application accepted him and I hate to say I know it had to do with their desire to have him on their team. Many of these schools have some of the nation’s top programs, including engineering. They want to build a program with the best talent they can find. He needed to know he needed to build the best career path using the tools they were now making available. Sports on all levels is a program, and yes there are bonds that are formed, but athletes come and go… Education is forever. They want athletes to help fill stadiums and sell merchandise. These guys help them bring in the next big recruit by showing off all the school has to offer… My son benefits, but at the same time he is being used by a system. Chances are he will not go on to play pro lacrosse. What he does have a chance of is getting a first class education that can lead to more opportunities. I hate to say use them like they are using him, but this was what helped pay his way. This is what got him in a top university. This is what possibly even helped him get that acceptance letter. And this is what will help him after he graduates. He has always known this sport is a passion he loves, so its not about making a profit for playing. Focus on the degree, not the earning potential on a college level. They can take away a paycheck. An injury can take away your position. But noone can take away your intelligence. That should be the focus while in school. The sport is just the tool used to get you through the door.

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