I remember when the quote “we ain’t come here to play school,” appeared amid the other college football news that swarms my phone daily. It had resurfaced from a 2012 tweet of Cardale Jones, Ohio State Quarterback who led his Buckeyes to the 2014 National Championship. I remember it as one of the funnier sports remarks I’d heard, a hysterical simplification of the dual responsibilities of student-athletes which I believed were separate and still do. Never did I anticipate directing that laughter toward myself and applauding Jones’s simplification as the best on the college sports dilemma. Yet I strictly play school and here I am.
Friday, September 13th. I’m in my dorm and open my Twitter feed in search of something interesting. The app delivers; I quickly fix on a tweet from First Take, ESPN’s comically sensational segment featuring Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman. Today’s set is especially saturated in personality with Tim Tebow joining. It is an odd day for televangelism, but I oblige.
The clip isn’t long, but Tebow compensates with intensity. He rails against the California Fair Pay to Play Act––since turned law on September 30th ––that would allow college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. Status as a former star helps push his nearsighted take: he personally didn’t want profit from his world-famous jersey, that fans’ passion would automatically decline if players received that profit, and that sacrificing this passion so “young kids can earn a dollar” is somehow less fair than the reverse which happens now.
None of these points mattered any more than the other misguided ones that followed in the reply chain. A statement’s greatest value is the discourse it inspires––and Twitter had forgotten Cardale’s wisdom on both sides of the debate. That’s not to deny the mob any useful contributions it made to the discussion. Many highlighted that the law would cause individual markets and not institutions themselves to further compensate athletes, attempting to cool the rage of free-tuition enthusiasts. Still, among these scattered truths one was missing: that a college education is an unsuitable payment for D1 athletes in principle as well as value.
To understand the absurdity of compensating D1 athletes with education, it helps to consider its inverse. Imagine that academic groups––debate societies, quiz bowl teams, etc––generated enormous revenues for their schools. Then, in return for this financial spark, the universities placed them in a comprehensive 4-year physical education curriculum. Splitting time between exercise and class might prevent these scholars from graduating in Olympic condition, but at least they’d have perfected the plank.
Opponents of pay-for-play will likely argue that this analogy falsely equates higher education with fitness, which doesn’t provide the same intangible perks beyond college. This perspective fails to see the incongruity of compensation with students’ skill sets in either case. Just because learning is generally more conducive to financial success doesn’t make it fitted to athletes, as intensive exercise programs would be incompatible with the foremost goals of academic groups. Yet we’d be sure to receive complaints of exploitation from scholars (and likely an essay on fair labor practices), while today a player can’t even make a YouTube channel to give himself a voice. But he might earn a dollar doing that, and it’s not worth our passion dropping.
Universities know many athletes enter school at disadvantages but admit them for their monetary and publicity values. This happens in tandem with the NCAA’s lobbying for amateurism and “full-ride” scholarships. Players are held to lower entry standards for test scores and grades, which extends to significantly worse success rates during time on campus. A 2017 study from the College Sport Research Institute showed mean graduation gaps of 34% and 17% for D1 Men’s basketball and football teams respectively. These are figures adjusted for NCAA statistics which suggest players graduate at 10+% higher rates than nonathletes. Compound this deception with the overwhelming poverty in which 86% of D1 athletes found themselves entrenched according to a 2011 National College Players Association report. Or the fact that a 2015 survey showed PAC-12 Conference athletes spent up to 50 hours a week on sports and were “too exhausted to study” because the NCAA so feebly enforces its 20-hour regulation. No wonder, then, that academic fraud has plagued campuses ranging from North Carolina to Syracuse; how could anyone play school under these circumstances?
College classes are not “pointless” as the latter portion of Jones’s tweet describes them, but they aren’t aligned with players’ interests and expertise. In a future compensation model, financial rewards could encourage degree obtainment among big-time D1 athletes, the bulk of whom will not play professionally. For now, the narrative promoting free tuition as foolproof insurance against prospective economic uncertainty must be challenged by criticizing the current amateur model as a flawed idea that produces grim realities. We must remember next time in the stadium or arena that the players whose jerseys we wear didn’t come here to play school. Hell, if they did, we wouldn’t be watching.