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Travis Fife: Education for student-athletes must be prioritized over financial gain

By Travis Fife

Feb. 6, 2015 11:00 a.m.

Make no mistake, college sports are a business, and business has never been better.

ESPN has an unfathomable 12-year, $7.3 billion contract to broadcast the BCS national championship playoff. UCLA men’s basketball coach Steve Alford makes $2.6 million as his base salary. The Pac-12 made $6 million just for having a team in the playoffs. Companies are willing to shell out money just to have their names attached to the event sponsors every bowl game.

This context makes any discussion of the “student-athlete” model difficult. On the one hand, universities like to claim that athletics offer students a way to a university education that they otherwise wouldn’t have. But the sporting events gross so much money for the people involved that it’s hard to maintain a focus on academics with so many dollar bills hanging in administrators’ faces.

This model of college-sports-as-business has become explicit in many of the minds of the UC regents. The regents choose to table a proposal that would make a coach’s bonuses contingent on maintaining a certain academic performance score. Regent Eddie Island even went so far as to say, “A college degree is not the goal of every athlete that comes to the university. They come for the athletics.”

What becomes difficult is whether or not the current proposal is a step in the right direction. Given only 2 percent of student athletes will go on to professional sports, we should prioritize their education. But, this proposal seems to allow the UC to boast about student-athlete accountability, when in reality the standard isn’t really being raised. This proposal seems more like a public relations move than anything.

The proposal perpetuates a myth that the “student-athlete” label is still consistent in today’s sports culture. It allows administrators to create a “standard” that is already incredibly low. Regent John Perez even pointed out that of all the teams, only UC Riverside’s men’s basketball team would fail to meet the academic standards under the new proposal. So in reality, the proposal seems like a piecemeal reform that gives us something to boast about without changing the reality of the UC sports landscape.

The issue with college sports is that those who regulate it have a vested financial interest in keeping the focus on athletics because that’s what produces such absurd revenue numbers. Reforms like this allow us to perpetuate the “student-athlete” label without really investigating it.

There are serious questions that have to be raised about what schools expect from their athletes. But the more important starting point for these conversations is whether the NCAA model is sustainable. If athlete-accountability is really something we care about, then it starts with the business that promotes their success.

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