Sunday, May 31, 2020
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A New Era of Student (Athlete) Protection

By: John Nardolillo

A 14-point plan to improve the academic performance of student-athletes was approved by the UC Board of Regents last week, in response to suffering graduation rates in some University of California athletic programs.

Some of the major points of the proposal focus on general themes, like accountability in the athletic department and communication between university officials, coaches and most importantly, players.

The process involves identifying academically at-risk individuals and prescribing assistance proactively, assigning counselors and enforcing regular meetings.

It also looks to address the more systemic issue of admitting students who lack academic chops into a given university, in a sense setting them up to fail.  The plan will take final admissions decisions out of coaches’ hands and tilt recruiting methods toward potential athletes who fit the bill for the universities’ academic standards.

Hopefully the UCs can begin a national trend, and we can avoid another debacle like the one in North Carolina’s basketball program.  The Tar Heels’ scandal involved unauthorized grade changes, as well as classes with little to no work being done, leaving the players ill-equipped to succeed in any career path after college.

Many of the points on the plan seem superfluous, like “athletic directors shall report directly to the Chancellor of their campus,” and “diligent compliance” of NCAA rules.  Maybe I’m naïve, but if following the rules and reporting your progress is part of a policy change, I shudder to think of the previous operation.

In contrast to schools with more emphasis on athletics, the UCs have reputations to maintain as top academic institutions.

In 2013, it was revealed that UC Berkeley’s football team had the lowest graduation rate among every team in the top six conferences nationwide.  The basketball team held the bottom spot in the Pac-12.

UCLA and Berkeley have more leeway to provide assistance to their athletes, especially in the big-money programs like football and basketball, due to protection from the Pac-12.  Back in 2014, the conference moved to guarantee four-year scholarships and instituted more accommodating health care benefits.  Athletes injured during their college careers will have their expenses covered for up to four years after they leave.    

However, schools like UC Irvine and the other UC campuses cannot boast such a luxury. In fact, there is no NCAA provision in place to keep colleges on the hook for injuries to their student-athletes.

There are too many stories in which a student earns an athletic scholarship from a less cooperative NCAA program and suffers a debilitating injury.  The family is wracked with medical bills while the university rips away their financial aid, leaving them with tuition payments to boot.

Patrick Courtney, a football player for North Carolina A&T, developed a hernia that needed surgery and was forced to transfer after his scholarship was not renewed.  Kyle Hardrick tore his meniscus in his first year playing basketball at Oklahoma.  The university disputed the results of his MRI, and Hardrick had to use his family’s insurance to cover the operation and had his scholarship dropped due to his inability to play.

The new policy adopted by the UCs guarantees scholarships to ensure students can finish their degrees in the midst of such tragedies.  That’s a huge step in the right direction.

It’s about time some colleges at least tried to make good on their promises of free higher learning, especially our own.

If free education is all that’s offered, then the universities have to show initiative in protecting the student-athletes who break their backs — sometimes literally — for the benefit of their schools.

If you’ve watched ESPN in your lifetime, you’ve seen the commercial where college athletes are engaging in some sort of sweat-inducing activity, like bench pressing or swimming laps and then cuts to them writing equations on a chalkboard or playing violin in a tuxedo.  It’s the NCAA spot that ends with the dictum: There are over 400,000 NCAA student athletes, and almost all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.

Universities need to be held accountable for the roughly 98 percent of these students who plain aren’t good enough to play professionally and make a career of it.  

We appreciate the entertainment and pride we have in our student-athletes, but let’s put a bit more emphasis on the “student.”