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Why college isn't for everyone, and student-athletes should have the choice of payment or education

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Help, improvement, mobility-- those things come in different currencies, depending on who you are, depending on where you're from. To treat education like it is some universal band-aid is ironically the least educated thing we could be doing.

My past self hates my present self for saying this, but no, I do not believe college is for everyone anymore.


I used to believe, strongly, that college was for everyone and anyone. It wasn't a question of qualification in terms of your AP or SAT scores (one of the first things that my freshman year roommate did after we met one another was tell me, almost proudly, that she had cheated on both-- how do you even do that?) but rather a desire to be there and to go through the process of learning.

Athletes should be, if anything, better equipped than regular students to do so, in certain ways. One of the most incredible educators and coaches around, Jack Clark, tells his guys (I'm paraphrasing) to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The place where you feel like your body hurts, like you want to give up more than anything, like you cannot do more? Get comfortable in that place.

Learning can be a similar battle. You can become extremely demoralized, think you just can't do it. Sometimes you can't (hello, anything biology). But to succeed in any classroom, your attitude must be one of resilience; you cannot hit a wall, and turn back around. You have to learn to appreciate the feeling of hitting that wall repeatedly, battle the mental, rational forces telling you that you should stop, because that process, in itself, will sometimes get you to the other side.

I was a tutor for four years. I tutored athletes at Cal mainly from the revenue sports. I'll spare any details here, but after years of seeing precisely what some of the biggest names in Cal Athletics do as far as their academics go, what they're willing to do as far as work goes, and what they really want to do with the time that they're not spending playing their sport, my views on college and its universal appropriateness shifted.

It has nothing to do with intelligence. Often, when you believe you're going into the NBA or NFL, (oh, and ask every guy on that bench if they're going to the league-- yep, they all are) the idea of getting a degree just isn't that exciting. No one is going to be able to convince another person of the value of education. I have tried, time and time again with many "student-athletes." You believe it, you see it, or you don't. And, like I said, it's not about intelligence. Plenty of these guys are smart enough to know exactly what to say to administrators or anyone who asks to convince them that they're invested in their academics. If those same administrators or coaches would sit in on a tutoring session, they wouldn't be able to pick their jaws up from the floor, but again, that's not the main point of this post. The point is that we need to start calling things what they really are if we want to begin to address the oozing wound that continues to plague the culture of college "amateur" athletics.

Coaches who say that they care about their athletes as students or people but they really have no contact with them outside of team activities? That's part of the problem. Come hang out at tutoring sessions. Go see if there are any books on the shelves of your athletes' apartments, or if the only use of the bookshelves is to hold 2k games and consoles. Then I believe that you're invested in these kids as more than building blocks of whatever legacy you're envisioning for yourself at our school.

Athletes are not the victims here, though, not by a long shot. The using is mutual; the "university" is a means to an end, the end being a professional sports career. Some athletes use their time at the school as an extended tryout for the next level, a way to hopefully get noticed, and at the end of the day, maybe get a degree if nothing else pans out.

In turn, the athletic department uses these kids as free showpieces, slapping their faces on billboards and posters, selling their jerseys for profit, none of which the athletes see.

What's happening here is very similar to professional sports, only there is an insane and unrealistic demand on the athletes to basically have two full-time jobs: one in the classroom, and one on the field or court. I'm going to repeat how insane, for most people, that is.

There needs to be a divide between school and athletics here, because the mutual exploitation that is currently occurring neither truly educates the majority of student athletes, nor benefits the status of a university as an educational system. It makes education a sham.

I am not faulting student-athletes or coaches here. To be honest, Sonny Dykes has no business in the tutoring sessions of his athletes; does he have an advanced, or any, degree in education? Does he know how to evaluate the efficacy of an educational exercise? No, and we don't expect him to. We hired him as a football, not an educational, expert. So what should be required of a coach-- attend tutoring sessions, classes-- is just as unrealistic as the idea of asking a kid who already has a full-time job as essentially a professional athlete to also be a professional student.

I've also changed my mind about this. I used to think that all college athletes should be paid.

If a university uses a student's face, photo, jersey, likeness, on a billboard, poster, brochure, ticket, that student should unequivocally receive payment.

If a university sells a student's jersey number in the store, that student should also receive payment.

What if student-athletes had to make a choice when they entered the university? They could either receive compensation in the form of payment, or the form of education. All living expenses that would normally be provided would still be provided in both cases.

Maybe, for the students choosing the payment route, they could be paid an equal amount to school tuition. No, we no longer get this neat little idea that all athletes are intellectuals, that the school is a benevolent educator of kids who wouldn't normally get that chance, or that every athlete that we love to watch is personally connected to us because we all received an education at the same institution. But I think at this point that's already pretty clear.

If we pay some athletes in money and others in education, it will be far from perfect. But that way, we know who wants to be in school, and who truly values their education. We shouldn't fault members of either camp for choosing the way they do. As Myron Rolle touches on in his speech before the stunned governmental committee he addressed, some of these guys are the primary breadwinners in their families when they begin to receive scholarship stipends.

That's a terrible thought, isn't it? An 18-year-old kid who is probably struggling to feed himself with the scholarship money allotted to do so, who then must send part of that money to a family that is struggling so much that whatever seemingly insignificant sum they receive makes all the difference in the world? Honestly, if we are naive enough to think that a student-athlete in this position has the luxury of being able to study, we are really struggling to comprehend the reality of lives, experiences, troubles, that are different from our own. It's an insulated, provincial, almost selfish idea, at the end of the day, that everyone in the world has the luxury of being able to get stressed out about not understanding Plato, biomechanics, electrical engineering.

Thinking that in the bigger picture we will solve the immediate concerns of a family living below the poverty level by (hopefully) educating one of its members, particularly at an institution like Cal, is just stupid. It's impractical, idealistic, and really does nothing to address the very real issues that many impoverished families face. Here are just a few of the reasons why: 1. We are not talking about introductory-level education, here. We are talking about university-level education. And not to be sitting here promoting Cal, but it is a reality that Cal ranks among the top universities in the world on a regular basis. It's not a school for everyone. It's just not. 2. Many of the student-athletes in question, who become their families' "primary breadwinners" once they begin to receive scholarship checks, do not come from homes where there are books in the house, newspapers on the table, a father mowing the lawn outside, a lawnmower. These things do not belong to the frame of reference of reality for everyone. It's not a question of whether Cal is appropriate in these situations, but how to even begin the educational process in the first place. Sure, state-mandated testing is another highly questionable process that can assuredly be debated, but how can we ask kids who may have to worry about their basic survival on a daily basis to also work their way through a test that in no way addresses the world that they know?

"Tommy's dad mows the lawn for 30 minutes. If he does this every day for a week, how long does he spend per week mowing?"

What if you don't have a lawn, or a lawnmower, or a dad? How do you begin to understand what even that very simple question is asking?

Then ask a kid who has been forgotten by the convolution, classism, and racism inherent to our educational system, but who is the one in a thousand or maybe ten thousand who is good enough at a sport to earn a college scholarship, to jump out of there in any way prepared to attend UC Berkeley. Well, actually, attend UC Berkeley, and essentially be employed full-time as an athlete. That's a fair proposition.

As much as we would love to believe it isn't, education is absolutely a luxury. And to try to force it on a kid who has already been through a broken first thirteen years of school when his family may really need money for basic survival is idiotic. Let him choose, or else, continue to be the teachers in South Park who tell their kids that they all must send a dollar to a kid in Afghanistan to help them, because they're being bombed, by us.

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The point is, help, improvement, mobility-- those things come in different currencies, depending on who you are, depending on where you're from. To treat education like it is some universal band-aid is ironically the least educated thing we could be doing. Sure, in theory, it's great to think that we can be as egalitarian and meritocratic as an unbroken education system would allow. For someone who's sick of looking at how difficult this problem is, and just wants to be able to tuck its imminent solution neatly into some rational and easily-fixable corner of their perceptive faculties, widespread education sounds great. When it comes to the discussion of the issues that envelop the world of college athletics, "education!" is the "eureka!" of the lazy, the aloof, the disconnected.

My proposed "solution" is imperfect. I hope you can point out why, and I hope that in that process, you can come up with something better. But here's why I like the idea of letting the students, or athletes, choose whether they belong to one, or both, of those categories.

We wouldn't have to continue this large-scale denial, pretending like everyone is in school because they love to learn, or because they have the luxury of being able to learn.

And we wouldn't have to struggle to ram knowledge down the throats of people who can only stomach such acts of force because their minds are on the NBA or NFL career that might just be what is gagged out at the end of the day.