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Student-Athletes and College Sports: Time to Do Something

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Now here was an interesting juxtaposition. On Saturday afternoon, and into the early evening, the annual Army-Navy football game, which used to be one of the major sporting events of the year, was contested in Philadelphia. Then, a couple of hours later, the 76th Heisman Trophy was presented in a Times Square theater to the outstanding college football-player of the year.

Why so interesting? Well, the two events have come to represent the opposite poles of what might still be called major intercollegiate football. Army versus Navy is one of the last examples of what this sport was meant to be -- a competition between true student-athletes. Indeed, it remains this in a pronounced way, for each young man on those two teams is fully involved in a rigorous academic and training program. In 2010, on the other hand, the Heisman trophy has come to represent the conflicted and disingenuous identity of the sport that college football has become -- a competition between residents of mostly large universities who are often students in name only and are either unpaid or illicitly paid quasi-professional athletes. Nearly every one who watches them talks about the hypocrisy of the situation, but no one does anything meaningful about it.

What would happen, by the way, if the trophy-winner were a player for one of the service academies? Would he be able to get to the award ceremony after playing in the biggest game of his year a few hours earlier? Obviously, the Heisman Trust, which presents the trophy, do not believe that a cadet or midshipman will win it again. Five have done so, but none since 1963, when it went to Navy's Roger Staubach.

The controversy around the Heisman this year involved the winner of 2005, the running-back Reggie Bush of the University of Southern California, and the favorite to win it in 2010, quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn, who indeed was awarded the trophy on Saturday night. The National Collegiate Athletic Association revealed that, during his last two college years, Bush and his family received hundreds of thousands of dollars from sports agents, and it nullified USC's 2004 national championship and imposed severe sanctions on its football program.

Newton's tale is more complicated. He began his NCAA career at the University of Florida, where, during the 2008 season, he was arrested for buying a stolen laptop computer, was suspended from the football team, and, after charges were dropped, left the school and played the next year at a junior college. The next act featured his father, Cecil, an ex-NFL-player, who had an apparently belated epiphany that his supremely talented son was worth money to him, and attempted to hold up Mississippi State University for something over $100,000 to enroll him there. The NCAA has confirmed that Cecil did ask for money, but has no proof that Cam knew about it. (Cecil's occupation? He's a Christian Pentecostal pastor and bishop.) When MSU didn't ante up, Cam suited up at Auburn University in Alabama, where he has fulfilled every promise and become the best amateur football-player in America. Presumably amateur, that is.

Now for a all I know Cecil Newton is a fine man who prayed over the issue and discerned that the struggling churches he oversees in Georgia are, in God's eyes, entitled to some of the money that a big university would make from his son's athletic skills. Or maybe he's one more corrupt churchman. His son may be a reprobate or a decent kid who made one mistake and got caught. The question I'm posing is whether or not he is a student-athlete, or is he a great, professional-quality athlete, with enormously lucrative potential, who, according to the American sporting system, is required to present himself as a candidate for higher education when he may not have either the aptitude or the inclination to be one. When observed from a distance, far from the enthusiasm in stadiums filled with 100,000 or more devoted fans, the latter situation and the system that it feeds are really ridiculous, and unfair to athletes who have no interest in being students.

I say, fill the stadiums; let the universities make money from their major-sports programs, but stop pretending that these are amateur exhibitions. Many commentators have called for openly paying football- and basketball-players in major programs. Fine. Pay at least some of them -- the most highly recruited -- and, to prevent bidding-wars, let the NCAA set guidelines. But, beyond that, end the pretense that all college athletes are also students. If the system demands that universities be feeding-grounds for professional sports leagues, let them continue to be, but end the silly requirement that athletes must earn college credits in order to become professional, as if they were preparing for law school or an engineering job. If they want to be students, and they qualify, enroll them. If neither, give them a room, their meals, a stipend, and maybe, to keep them occupied, a job around the campus. And let them represent the university on the gridiron or basketball court, not as students, but alongside players who are. The NCAA can then trim legions of investigators from its payroll.

And let the service academies, the Ivy League colleges and other, mostly smaller schools compete the old-fashioned way, entirely with student-athletes. In fact, set up a separate division for colleges whose leaders prefer to be rid of the compromising judgments involved in running competitive sports programs, and who feel that athletes should be subject to the same admission requirements as other students. They might well find that the games that their schools play are popular to the public and more satisfying to themselves.

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