Point of view

Duke law faculty offer 4 steps toward fixing college athletics

April 11, 2014 

It’s time to admit that our system of college athletics is as busted as our brackets were during the NCAA tournament.

We’re professors deeply committed to our students and higher education. We’re also huge fans of college sports. But we must acknowledge that only a myth allows these two parts of ourselves to coexist.

This myth is simple: that big-time college athletics can thrive without undermining academic integrity. The myth is also dangerous, and until we dispel it, college athletes will continue to be exploited and the drive to prop up an unsustainable system will continue to lead to behaviors that undermine our academic mission.

Though there appears to be fairly widespread recognition of this uncomfortable truth, there has been little hope for meaningful change. The two most commonly discussed alternatives – either professionalizing major college sports or forcing colleges and universities to de-emphasize sports – are equally unpalatable to the many of us who love our schools and our teams.

But perhaps we evade meaningful change and struggle against all the evidence to hold on to the NCAA’s nostalgic ideal of the “student-athlete” because we feel the need to treat college athletes as if they are just like college students who do not play sports. The reality is that college athletes are not like their peers, and any real change has to start by accepting that.

The recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board to allow players on the Northwestern University football team to unionize makes clear that college athletes face extraordinary demands. College athletes (on all teams, not just the revenue sports) are required to make a time commitment to their team that is equivalent to a job. As a practical matter, this leaves little time for the intense academic immersion that higher education requires. For athletes admitted to college because of their athletic accomplishments, the challenge is even more profound.

Meaningful change requires that we develop a system that gives all college athletes, even those who might play professionally, the chance to succeed as students while still allowing for the full-time commitment that their teams demand. What would such a system look like? As always, the devil is in the details, but in broad strokes here is our proposal:

1Give athletes time to be students. While college athletes are playing their sport, a full course load should be equivalent to a half-time load for other students. After their eligibility expires, they can become full-time students. For the typical college athlete, the vast majority of whom will not go pro, this would provide six years to graduate instead of four.

2Make a commitment to athletes as students. Instead of being one-year renewable awards, athletic scholarships should be guaranteed for the full period of time college athletes are in school (up to six years under this proposal). This would help schools want to ensure the academic success of college athletes even after their playing careers end.

3 Insure college athletes against injury. Another way that college athletes are different from other students is that they face real short- and long-term health risks as a direct result of competing for their schools. To address this, college athletes should receive high-quality, no-cost health insurance as part of their scholarships, as well as access to long-term disability insurance.

4Make colleges and universities accountable. Schools that do not ensure that college athletes get real educations must face immediate, non-negotiable and severe penalties. Assuming these modest changes are made, college athletes in all sports should graduate at rates that equal or exceed those of the general student body. Failure to meet this minimal standard or findings of institutional academic fraud should result in the immediate suspension of athletic programs and an unrestricted right of transfer for all affected students.

As fans, we believe such changes would enhance and sustain the major college sports we love. As teachers, we believe that changes to protect our students’ health and to expand real educational opportunities are a moral imperative. We can only hope that these ideas encourage some bold school to take the lead in creating a big-time athletic program that has real academic integrity. Even without such leadership, the NLRB’s decision in the Northwestern case shows that the end of the current system is coming.

Andrew Foster is a clinical professor of law and director of Experiential Education and Clinical Programs at Duke University. Jeff Ward is a lecturing fellow and director of Duke Law School’s Start-Up Ventures Clinic.

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