by Clark Groome

The relationship between college athletes, their institutions and the NCAA has once again come under scrutiny. Last week a National Labor Relations Board’s regional director ruled that Northwestern University football players are employees of the school and as such should be allowed to form a union.

While this ruling is limited to football players at one Big Ten school, its implications are far reaching. It may take years to resolve but the ruling does raise the issue of just what the relationship between student athletes and their schools should be.

At the moment, particularly in football and basketball, the money sports, kids recruited specifically to play sports and given a full scholarship are called “student athletes.” They are really athletes who go to class when that doesn’t interfere with a practice or a game and the transportation surrounding that game.

Some schools brag about relatively high graduation rates, others not so much. And the reality is that those kids who need the money and the education the most are likely to get neither.

Since only a tiny fraction of college athletes go on to play in the pros, their education should be the schools’ top priority. And while that is given lip service, at many football or basketball powers it’s not the reality.

On top of that, the kids who win the games, sacrifice their educations and represent their colleges and universities are treated like chattel because of a series of stupid NCAA rules designed to make it look like the kids are amateurs while their coaches, teams and schools make millions of dollars.

There was one case recently where a student playing basketball at a college where his father was the head basketball coach faced a dilemma: He wanted to take his girlfriend out to dinner but was low on cash. His father, who was more than willing to give his son the $50 needed, couldn’t because coaches are forbidden from giving money to players.

So herewith a modest proposal on what to do to turn those athletes who are the core of a sports program into real student athletes.

Require all athletes who agree to play for a school and are granted a scholarship to sign-up for four years or until they earn a degree. If they want to leave school for the pros before they have met that obligation then they must repay, with interest, the value of their scholarship, turning it into a loan rather than a grant.

Arrange the academic and practice schedules so that classes come first, with the understanding that if, say, Penn State has to get to the West Coast for a football game, some classes might be missed. But they wouldn’t be missed or scheduled so that a kid would be able to make his two-a-days.

Require that all students wanting to play sports maintain a reasonable grade-point average, perhaps a 2.0 or 2.5. When a student falls below that his academic advisor should be there not to help him get the average up so he can play, which often means taking basket weaving instead of modern European history or browbeating a teacher to change a grade, but to help him learn what he needs to know in order to get that average up himself.

Take a small percentage of what coaches get in endorsement deals and place it in a fund to help kids who need money in an emergency – to get home for a family crisis or whatever – or, on occasion, just to go out and buy a new pair of pants.

Allow students to make a few extra bucks signing autographs or selling equipment with their names on it. Make them feel appreciated – not just used.

Work with the professional sports leagues to reduce the number of athletes the pros poach from colleges before the kid is anywhere near graduation. This isn’t always going to work because some students will opt out for the big bucks. Well, so be it. After he pays back his former-scholarship-now-a-loan, he should still be welcome to finish his degree and maybe even do graduate work during the off-season or after his career is finished.

If any player, scholarship or not, is hurt playing for a college or university, all his or her medical expenses should be covered. If it’s a long-term injury, he or she should be covered for life. And injured scholarship students who can no longer play should keep his or her scholarship until graduation.

And, finally, let a father give his son a few bucks to take his girl to dinner and a movie.